Did Jesus Meet Satan in the Desert?

After I argued against the existence of Satan as a “person” in my last post, someone asked me how I would then account for Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the desert. I confess I have been at a bit of a loss as to how to structure an answer. That is not to say that I don’t have any thoughts on the matter, but rather that any answer that will make sense to my readers needs to be underpinned by a common understanding of Jesus’ mission and what “sin” is. Those are meaty concepts and I could write several posts on each. I even intended just that. But I have decided that a brief explanation will need to suffice and that it is more important to just answer the question. I will unpack the idea of sin, and provide a much more detailed opinion on how I understand Jesus’ mission at a later stage.

 

My interpretation of the events described in the gospels regarding Jesus’ trials in the desert, rests on a particular understanding of evil and sin. Evil, I would suggest, is not located externally. Nor can “evil” be confined to categorical descriptors for particular actions. That would be to suggest that the action is independent of the actor, and that the actions are independent of their consequences. Instead, I would like to suggest that evil is primarily a relational concept. It is a way of relating to God and to people. Sin, then, rather than being an event, is the process and result of relating to both God and other people in problematic ways. So while some behaviours can certainly be labelled as satanic or evil, they can be classified as such not because they break particular laws, but because of the impact of those actions on our relational structures. I do not think it is coincidental that in almost all of our understandings of the term “evil”, “evil” can be linked to some form of violence. And violence is, crudely put, the extension of our egos at the expense of others. That, by the way, is what I think Jesus is alluding to in the Sermon on the Mount when he says that even those who call their brothers “fools” are committing murder. It is not the act of killing per se that is at the heart of God’s prohibition of murder. It is the violence that destroys peaceful relations that is problematic, and such violence can be achieved through our attitudes towards others as easily as through physical shedding of blood. This link between sin and violence, I think, is key to understanding Jesus’ trials.

 

An understanding of how Jesus understood his mission is also imperative. According to Dr Jeffrey Gibson in his book Temptations of Jesus in early Christianity, the word that we translate as “temptation” or “trial” with regards to Jesus’ desert experience is, in its origin, a word that uses “trial” as a description of the process of proving, through hardship, one’s worth or commitment; a test of one’s mettle, so to speak. We cannot, then, talk of Jesus’ trials in the desert without understanding what aspects of his mission were at stake if he failed, or in ignorance of what it was to which he needed to prove commitment. If your understanding of what constitutes sin is ‘performing an action forbidden by God’, then Jesus’ trials in the desert would make absolutely no sense. Where does Torah ever caution against the grievous abomination of transforming metamorphic rock into a baked good? Given that Jesus was perfectly happy to transmute well water into merlot by the jarful, how does it make sense that a solitary loaf of bread would be taboo? If you understand sin only as individual actions that transgress a law, this cannot make sense. But if you understand sin as primarily relational, and linked to violence, then the light will go on.

 

What is at stake in the desert is the very relationship between humanity and God. The satanic, I think, is always linked to our own willingness to use violent means to extend our egos, to fulfil our own desires. What Jesus confronts in the desert is not an external locus of evil that wants to make him do naughty things; it is the dark side of his human nature that shows him the appeal of using his divine nature to satisfy his needs: his physical discomfort, his longing to have his mission understood, his authority recognised, so that he can restore righteous rule to his people. But Jesus resists the allure of the easy way out, of wanton and self-serving uses of his power. He could easily simply coerce people into his service through an overwhelming display of raw power, enforcing his will on them. But he refuses. Just as later, in Gethsemane, he reminds the disciples – as they draw their swords to protect him from arrest – that he is perfectly capable of defending himself should he so choose, but he renounces violence. It is the allure of the ease with which he could become the Davidic warrior Messiah that the disciples expected that causes him to chastise Peter in Matthew 16:23, where he alludes to this construction of the Messiah as being an ‘adversary’ to his mission.

 

In short, Jesus renounces violence – the forceful extension of ego at the expense of others – in the desert, and not only there, but in Gethsemane, in Caesarea, and probably on several occasions not documented. This was the core of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. And in these trials, he proved that he was committed to the mission, that he could ‘walk the talk’. And it is just as well he did.

 

Had he failed in those trials, he would have trapped us in a relationship with a monster God, a violent God, a God willing to use force to make us submit to his will, even if that will is to our benefit. The end does not – nor ever can – justify the means. A peaceful and righteous, God-ruled kingdom cannot come at the price of an abusive relationship. Jesus refused to be the God that throughout the ages we have made him out to be – vengeful, aloof, pious, willing to get his way at all costs, even if that meant sweeping us aside. Instead, he let us hurt him in the name of justice, demonstrated that true evil happens when we turn religious piety into a weapon to accuse and “other”, when we assume our own holiness and compel others to be like us.. In the desert, and on numerous other occasions, it was not a personified, externalised evil over which Jesus triumphed. Even if the writers of the gospels may have understood it that way (And I am not convinced they did. Where, for example, would Jesus have found a mountain high enough to see the whole world, as Matthew’s account narrates?). It was himself, his capacity to act satanically. What was on trial was God’s very commitment to a relationship with humanity that does not require sacred violence. To show us that the shedding of blood as a requirement for atonement was always ours, not his. He was willing to die to show us that instead of forcing us to bow the knee. And then he forgave. Because God is not violent. God is not like us. He was tempted in every way, yet was without sin.

A Very Brief History of Satan

The truth is that I have not spent much time incorporating the satan into my theology. So when a commentator requested last week that I explain my beliefs regarding the satan, I was a little anxious, to be honest. The request makes sense, though: if I am dismissing the notion of hell as a literal place of punishment and torment, then what do I do with Satan? It is a legitimate question. But it is not a question to which I have devoted much time, preferring to focus on the light than on the darkness. So I am aware that what follows is not a coherent and complete doctrine. All I hope to do is provide some insight into the framework which I would use to construct a doctrine on the satan if I were to devote time to doing so.

 

I need to begin by noting that I am more than a little concerned by the modern Evangelical preoccupation with Satan. I am not convinced that darkness-oriented ministry is a particularly fruitful use of time and energy. First, I see it as largely unnecessary: if I do ‘good’ (ie. imitate Jesus’ ethics of practising forgiveness and relinquishing violence, whether systemic or personal) then by definition I restrict ‘evil’, as evil is simply the absence of goodness rather than the opposite of it. Second, I think an ‘evil’-oriented ministry speaks to fear (rooted, as it is, in a crime punishment mentality) and, consequently, ultimately drives out love (1 John 4:18) and thus God, for God is love (1 John 4:8). Still, some understanding of what has come to be known as Satan is probably useful: if we have a picture of Satan that is wrong, the chances are that we have a picture of God that is wrong too. And if our pictures of God are wrong, our ethics become distorted as a result. Even a brief look at what has been done in the name of religion will provide a sobering reminder of the necessity for having a right picture of God.

 

Getting a sound picture of God is hard work, but critical. How I wish that all Christians would try to do meaningful research when constructing their theologies. I completely understand why, when asked what the greatest commandment was (Matthew 22:36-40), Jesus added that we ought to love God with ‘all of our minds’ – which is not in the original – when quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 (Do you notice how he uses scripture? There is no hint that it is complete and inerrant). Religious people tend to avoid thinking. I don’t mean that cruelly. I think we do it because we conflate our theologies (our ideas about God) with God. In other words, God becomes what we think She is, and we cannot accept challenges to our God-concepts because they are challenges to our selves. It is easier to avoid thinking. I think Jesus understood this, except he pointed it out more diplomatically than I know how to. In the spirit of developing an informed theology, I have done a little research into Satan, and I am going to paraphrase the key ideas from the reading list at the end of the post. Although I do not agree with everything all of them write, they each provide valuable insight for you to sift through. All of my ideas are derived from their work.

 

It may surprise many to know that Satan is not prominent in the Biblical writings at all. Most of what people have come to understand about Satan is derived from mythological writings and theologically questionable apocryphal texts.

 

In the Old Testament, satan is mentioned only a handful of times. On almost every one of those very few occasions, the word – meaning “adversary” or “accuser” – is used in reference to a human being. The absence of any reference to a supernatural “evil” being in literally centuries’ worth of writing has to suggest that either the concept of a being that embodies evil does not exist within the theologies of the people of those times, or is entirely unimportant if it does. And this is borne out in the way the word satan is used in the ancient writings: when the word satan is used, it denotes a function rather than a title. Thus, for example, when Jesus tells Peter “get behind me, satan” (Matthew 16:23), or when satan enters Judas (Luke 22:3), it is not meant to indicate possession by a malevolent spiritual force. Simply put, it indicates that these people acted as adversaries or stumbling blocks to Jesus’ mission through their behaviour. Nor does the word necessarily carry connotations of evil: note how God acts as a satan to David in the parallel passages of 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1.

 

Somewhere during the exile in Babylon, possibly as a result of exposure to the ideas of Persian philosopher Zoroaster (who was trying to understand the nature of evil in the world, and had developed ideas around principles of light and principles of darkness, like opposing gods, locked in eternal cosmic battle), dualistic thinking about spiritual forces of good and evil entered Jewish (and later Christian) thinking. Over time, a mythology developed around a cosmic battle for the human soul between a good God and his evil counterpart, Satan. But this notion is entirely absent from early Jewish theology. Any reading of a literal being embodying evil (like the snake in Eden) can only be read backwards into the earlier texts. Any such reading would be anachronistic.

 

Ideas about a literal devil do start to have increasing sway in Jewish thinking, largely in accordance with the books of Enoch, which scholars date to somewhere between the 3rd and 1st Centuries BC, and which some of the new Testament writers quote. Although the claimed authorship is Enoch, the son of Noah, it was common practice at the time to claim that a prominent authority was the author of a text, in order to give it increasing credibility. This, for example, is the case with the book of Hebrews, which claims Paul as its author, a claim which scholars are fairly unanimous in rejecting. But when it comes to the concept of the satan, while traces of the ideas in the books of Enoch can be found in the New Testament, by no stretch of the imagination could anyone legitimately claim that the current understandings of Satan are Biblically derived.

 

Where does that leave me? I don’t know, truthfully. I think sin and the satan are tied up somehow, but I am convinced that the origins of the works of the satan are with me. Whenever I act in a way that opposes God’s peace agenda and Her grace, whenever I fail to forgive, or point fingers and accuse others, whenever I use the Bible or my faith as a weapon to define people as unacceptable or to perpetuate violent and unjust systems, I am the satan. I have a feeling that “him who holds the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14) , “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and the “powers”, “principalities”, “authorities” and “rulers” to which Paul often refers, even “the world” against which Jesus sets himself in opposition, are ways of relating to one another and to God that promote violence, and use the power of death – the devil – to maintain authority. Perhaps, in short, the devil is not so much a being as a way of relating, both to others and to God, that is built on violence (the absence of forgiveness). I do agree with Tom Wright that the presence of evil in the world is somehow bigger than the sum of the individual sinful human contributions, having almost taken on a life of its own, so to speak, and I am sure that, in some way that I do not comprehend, this is what Jesus defeated on the cross – why adherence to holiness codes could never suffice; why the law cannot bring life (Romans 8:2).

 

More than that, when it comes to the satan, I am unsure. I am not sure that I need to be more sure either. But I am certain of this: it is more valuable to embrace a faith that seeks to bring light than one that seeks to avoid darkness.

 

A Woefully Inadequate Reading List (please feel free to add):

 

Duncan Heaster, The Real Devil: A Biblical Exploration: http://www.realdevil.info/2-3.htm

Michael Hardin, The Satan : https://preachingpeace.org/the-satan

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006)

Saved From Hell

Nathan (my four-year-old son) is obsessed with snakes at the moment, so whenever we go to the library, at least two of his six books for the week are field guides to snakes. Bedtime routine lately consists of a story, followed by paging through a snake book and discussing one or two at some length. The other night, one of the pages showed a cross-section (from the top) of a snake, to illustrate its anatomy. “That’s the heart”, I pointed out. Nathan was silent for a few seconds, then asked: “Where is Jesus?”

 

I sometimes worry about having Nathan in a Christian school. I don’t always like the theology they teach. I am certainly not a proponent of the type of Christianity that advocates that God requires you to “accept Jesus into your heart” or risk an unpleasantly warm eternity. I don’t believe in Hell. Not in the eternal punishment sense anyway. Certainly the entire line of thinking is incompatible with 1st Century Jewish understandings of ‘eternal life’, the ones which Jesus and those he taught would almost certainly have held. Also, the belief that God gives you a choice between loving Him and everlasting suffering is completely at odds with any sort of loving or just God. In other words, the doctrine of Heaven for the righteous and Hell for the unrepentant directly contradicts core Christian assumptions about the nature of God.

 

First, the concept of Heaven as a reward for the righteous is not a belief that existed at all among Jewish communities of the 1st Century. If they believed in any afterlife at all, the Jews of Jesus’ time (those who followed the theology of the Pharisees) would have held (crudely speaking) that after God’s Messiah had cleansed the temple and vanquished those who oppressed the Jewish people, God would initiate the Resurrection, where everyone would be raised from the dead, and God would restore Israel and make his dwelling among His people in a renewed Earth. There is, in the beliefs of Jesus’ time, no notion that God’s eternal dwelling would be in some alternative dimension. When Jesus talks about “the Kingdom of God”, it is safe to assume, he is not referring to an extended party in the sky. His vision is very much more down-to-earth, so to speak. The Law of God’s Kingdom that Jesus preaches paints a picture of how society will function in a Kingdom ruled by God, right here on Earth. And that Law is perfectly encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 through 7). More about that later.

 

Second, the doctrine of Heaven and Hell preached in most churches actively precludes a just and loving God. Christians try to reconcile the brutality of this doctrine of Hell with the notion of a loving God by insisting that it needs to exist in order to satisfy God’s perfect sense of justice. It is a flimsy argument. It bases itself on the notion that perfect justice must be retributive, against which I have argued on many occasions. I have heard many a preacher defend the concept of Hell by arguing: wouldn’t you want to know that people would get what was coming to them? Wrong must be repaid, they insist. Only, how is burning for eternity (just think about what that would be like, for a moment) in any way fair compensation for any wrongdoing committed in the minute span of one human life? That simply cannot be construed as just. The alternative is that the ‘sinner’ “accepts Jesus into her heart” and even if she is the most vile human being in her lifetime, she walks away scot-free. Instead, a completely innocent Jesus suffers in her place. That cannot be considered just either. Culpability cannot be transferred. An innocent third party taking the punishment for an offender is by no stretch of the imagination justice. Simply put, the concept of Hell is not compatible with Christian theology.

 

All “Hell” is useful for is terrifying people into compliance. “Perfect love”, claims John in 1 John 4:18, “drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment”. If God’s intention is for us to practice love, and I need to point out that Jesus teaches that all of the Law and the Prophets can be summed up in the command to love God and to love one another, then fear and punishment have no place in the equation. If the only reason we serve God is because His house seems more appealing than the alternative, then we have no love in us at all. Similarly, if we serve the church or our community or our family because we fear them in some way, then love is diminished. Hell, as the very embodiment of fear and punishment, then, is directly in opposition to love, and therefore to God.

 

So when Jesus taught, “repent, because the Kingdom of God is near”, I am sure that he did not mean that we were destined to fry unless we said the sinner’s prayer, gave intellectual assent to a human creed that encapsulates some ancient church father’s flawed theology, or ‘invited Jesus into our hearts’. In all likelihood, he meant that if we wanted to function properly in a post-Resurrection world which has God reigning as king here on Earth, among Her people, then we would need to adopt a Kingdom ethic. It is not a threat. I believe that Jesus is simply pointing out that you will not be happy in an egalitarian community if your ego dictates your actions and determines your contentment. When Jesus talks about being “born again”, I do not think he means putting your hand up in church in a moment of environmentally-induced euphoria, to be “saved”. I think he simply means passing through the Jewish Resurrection into a new kind of Eden here on Earth. Notice how he talks about this in the “born again” passage (John 3). Speaking to Nicodemus, he says:

 

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

 

Note that the primary thing keeping people away from the “Light” of God’s kingdom is not God. It is themselves. There is no punishment alluded to here at all. If there is a Hell at all, it is not because God’s wrath demands satisfaction; it is because we are afraid of what we look like in a community that lives in love. Our fear, our ego, our religion, keep us in a state of self-loathing, a kind of hell from which Jesus aims to rescue us. Jesus is saving us from ourselves, not from God’s anger. And for those who believe verse 18 contradicts what I am saying, note that the passage does not speak to who is doing the condemning. Also, when Jesus talks about “believing in him”, as is evident in the Sermon on the Mount, he is referring to an action, not an intellectual activity. From Matthew 7, the conclusion of the sermon on the mount (my emphasis):

 

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

 

Please note that again there is no punishment implied: it is a choice between wisdom or foolishness, and the resultant consequences of that choice. This issue of putting Jesus’ words into practice is not a question of moral worthiness, but of practicality. Believing Jesus’ words means following his teachings, not because we will be punished if we do not, but because his way is wise and therefore conducive to good living.

 

So what does ‘putting his words into practice’ mean? It is not adherence to a holiness code to earn God’s favour. It is living wisely. And he defines that in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, I believe if we want a proper insight into Jesus’ theology, we need to pay serious attention to this sermon. And what does this sermon do? It breaks our egos. It empties us of all our religious pretentions. It reminds us that we are not the centre of the universe. It makes the Kingdom about everyone- about proper relationship –not about our individual merits. Love our enemies?! Bless them?! Righteousness that surpasses the hypocrisy and holiness codes of the Pharisees and demands that we love everyone? It offends us. It exposes us. And then it points us to a better way. The first line of the sermon sums it up beautifully: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. To paraphrase, if you want to possess the God-life, recognise that you are not very good at being spiritual. It is only then that we can begin to relate in a healthy way to others and to God. Religion makes people proud and arrogant. It divides people by making them feel superior or inferior to others, by blinding them to their common humanity. The Sermon on the Mount dismantles religion, with all of its holiness codes, with all of its egocentricity, with all of its “thou shalt nots”, with all of its divisiveness, and poses alternatives: what does God’s intended vision of life look like? Why not try that instead? See the difference it will make.

 

So as Nathan asked where Jesus was, and even as I laughed, I worried for him. I thought about all the horrible theology I would have to undo; about how he is being taught to believe that he needs to be good to earn God’s favour; about how he will feel pressurised to “accept Jesus into his heart”, along with all of the rubbish that goes with that – a warped perspective of justice, feelings of inadequacy, terror because a very thin and nebulous line stands between eternal bliss and unimaginable agony. I felt anxious that in all of the religion, he might miss the real beauty of Jesus’ life, his teachings, his death and his resurrection.

 

And then I had my own revelation. Maybe I don’t need to worry. After all, we all go through this stage on our spiritual journeys. We all start by associating spirituality with our own personal holiness. We associate our worth with our moral choices. We make it about ourselves. Many – perhaps most – of us never move beyond that, which is sad. But like everyone else, Nathan will walk that path. Nothing I can do will protect him from that. Whether he is in a Christian school or not, horrible theology is part of growing up. But maybe, with the right role-modelling, he will come to see that love for God and fear of Her wrath cannot easily cohabit the same theology. And I pray that the Sermon on the Mount will break him too, that it will empty him of religion and ego, and empower him to pick up the cross of Jesus – the way of love that the world cannot understand, and which it despises – and show him how to live a Kingdom life that surpasses obsessions with holiness codes, that rejects fear, and which fosters a genuine desire to lose oneself in the community of the Kingdom. I pray that as he genuinely engages with Jesus’ teachings, and not simply with the twisted version of them presented by the church, that Nathan will allow love to deliver him from a hell of his own making.

Weeping for Jerusalem

It’s been a busy few weeks, workwise. In many ways, they have been very rewarding. But the last few weeks have been disillusioning too, and I have found it very difficult to write. I feel like I am beating the same drum, over and over again. But that drum is my heartbeat at the moment, and so in order to write authentically, I suppose I have to keep drumming.

For a brief moment I understood something of what Jesus must have felt when he looked down on Jerusalem in Luke 19 and wept:

41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

It was precipitated by the attack in Manchester. People were rightly upset and angry. That is how we should always feel about violence – particularly violence perpetrated in the name of religion. The outrage that ensued was entirely legitimate. But the very next day there followed what I can only imagine was – in some way – a retaliatory reaction. A US-led airstrike in Syria, ostensibly targeting ISIS, but which killed around 80 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. At least half of those were children. I found it utterly heart-breaking. When I heard it on the radio, driving to work, I actually cried. Partially because this kind of thing happens so terribly frequently in the Middle East and Africa but it seems that nobody on social media protests with nearly the same vehemence as they do for tragedies in Europe (and I am not suggesting that African or Middle Eastern devastations are more deserving of our attention; only that they are also worthy of it). Partially because of the flood of hate-filled justifications of these types of atrocities by Christians on social media. It sickens me.

I have said what I am about to say so often in recent weeks that I feel like a broken record, but it bears mentioning again. Not that I feel it will make any difference to the situation. It won’t. But I need to write it to purge the anger and dejection in me. As a result, maybe one or two Christian readers will turn around and acknowledge that it is high time Christian ethics began to reflect the peace-theology of the early church founders, and of the one whose name they so glibly adopt. Maybe some non-Christian readers, legitimately bitter because this type of hypocrisy, so rampant in Christianity, has hurt them deeply, will begin to understand that one cannot conflate Christianity, as it is commonly practised, and Jesus’s theology and ethics. But that would be a side effect. For now, I need to vent.

A part of the reason I feel so disillusioned is that I know that much of why this hatred exists is because of how we read the Bible. Please note that I am not blaming the Bible. That would be like blaming a knife for a murder. It is never the tool, but the one who wields it, that ought to be held responsible. I am convinced that many of the writers of parts of the Bible were irresponsible with their words, promoting violence as a Godly mandate. And for that reason I believe that sticking to the conviction that the Bible speaks with God’s voice is irresponsible too.

I won’t lie – I was incensed by the various Facebook posts and online comments that advocated “giving the bastards what they deserve” after Manchester. I was immeasurably disappointed by Christian commentators who described Islam as the bully on the playground that needed to be put in its place, who simplified a whole belief system into a simple hate-driven story. I was angry with the glaring disparity between the love-oriented ethics of Jesus to which online commentators professed allegiance, and their vitriolic rhetoric. I was disheartened because I knew that, as a result, the detractors of Christianity would similarly simplify the Christian story and place the whole peace theology movement in the same box. And so the profound truth of Jesus’ response to violence would never be heard. And I needed desperately to write – to voice my frustration, my disappointment. But I could not find the words.

I blame the way we have been taught to read the Bible (and I could probably say the same for the way any sacred texts are read, but this is the one I know, and thus the one I have the right to comment on. I will leave you to do the same for your own, whether that is the Q’uran, the Bhagavad Gita, or The God Delusion): without any form of critical engagement, where daring to question is frowned upon, and in a Christian culture that (probably unwittingly in most cases, I will concede) drives young people to be afraid to address their concerns with the dominant ethos and creeds. We have created a culture where the threat of losing heavenly real estate is so pressed onto young dissenters that they are too afraid to allow themselves to question. And worse, where those who follow blindly are heralded as heroes of the faith.

We dare not cling to the idea that the Bible speaks with God’s voice. It is glaringly obvious: how could one God hold, as Paul does in Galatians 3, that in Christ all the lines we have drawn in society to determine who is acceptable and who is not should be erased, while simultaneously demanding the genocide of anyone outside of the Israelite tribe, as He so frequently does in the Old Testament? If God is, as Evangelical theology maintains, unchangeable, how on earth do you reconcile those contradictory statements into a coherent “loving” voice? How do you not link the insistence on the dogmatically defended belief that the scriptures, which legitimise race-based violence, are inerrant to the massacre of thousands of people in US-led airstrikes in the name of Christianity and democracy and – in the bitterest of ironies – peace?! “God” does command genocide in the scriptures. It is legitimised there. And if you cannot see that this stands in stark and irreconcilable contrast to the theology and ethics of both Jesus and Paul, then you are not reading properly. Then again, I think that is precisely the problem.

I am going to take a step back to explain – very briefly and inadequately – a couple of philosophies of reading. First, there is a positivist way of understanding the world. Proponents of this philosophy would argue that the only valid knowledge is that knowledge that can be verified through empirical evidence; that which can be verified through the senses and through logical reasoning. Clearly this would preclude any form of spiritual or emotional experience, and so is not generally a framework through which adherents interpret their sacred texts. It is, as an aside, a very limited way of understanding the world. It is self-defeating, because it is illogical to assume that our senses and reasoning processes are infallible, and that the world is fundamentally knowable through the limited human modes of understanding it. But that is a debate for another time. Suffice it to say that this way of thinking has limited theological application. And so most religious readers today tend to adopt the second model, even while pretending the first.

The second approach is a more solipsistic one. It centres all understanding of the world around the self. There is a long philosophical history behind this way of seeing the world, which is prevalent in the West today – heavily influenced by ideas from the likes of Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche. Of course, Christians won’t (often don’t know enough to) acknowledge this, because it is a manifestation of an “evil” postmodern mindset that challenges our exclusivity, but this self-oriented approach has come to define how we worship, and how we relate to our faith and the Bible.

It is through this lens of “what-does-it-mean-to-me” that we give expression to the doctrine that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. We make a number of potentially problematic assumptions, most notably that God uses the Bible to speak directly to individuals (specifically, me) today. The message the text contains, therefore, was written not only for the people of the time the writer was transcribing God’s revelation, but was intended for all people everywhere, in all times (most importantly, for me). What was applicable then must therefore be equally applicable (to me) now. It is a reading that completely disregards context, which is why preachers are so happy to expound on only a few verses at a time, developing entire theologies around isolated verses. After all, if the whole thing is God’s word, then each word, each sentence must be granted equal weighting. And God is timeless (and therefore contextless, in a sense), and by extension the decrees in the scriptures must be so too. It is irrelevant in modern popular theology then, almost (certainly it is never seriously considered) that the verses and chapters were added later for ease of reference, and that it would be foolish to preach on any given passage independently of the context of the argument in which the ideas were raised. It is why we have been so blind to what Paul was arguing in his epistles. We can quote the bits where he cites the church in Jerusalem (which he regards as the false teacher), and attribute the ideas to Paul, when in fact he was paraphrasing the beliefs of the Jerusalem church and critiquing them– mocking them, even – not promoting them. We have to decontextualise Paul’s writings if we wish to construct a coherent, unified voice of God in the New Testament, when in fact there are two very sharply contrasting theologies presented.

Anyway, in assuming that God is speaking directly to us through the Bible, we ascribe to the writings a single, universal interpretation, and neglect the fact that reading is a dialogue. That we are always active in making meaning from texts. We forget, or at least disregard as irrelevant, the fact that our own worldviews (ideas underpinning how people of our time and place see the world) and mindsets (how we interpret those worldviews personally) influence what we read. In other words, we tend to regard ourselves as passive recipients of divine revelation rather than active (if unconscious) participants in the creation of it. The danger is this: by refusing to see how we shape our own readings, we refuse to see how the God we find in the texts is a projection of ourselves. To (over)simplify what is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon, the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture encourages Christians to worship themselves. That is why we see no problem with God-inspired violence to protect our own self-interests: we have already drawn the conclusion that our own interests are God’s too.

As an interesting aside, in the book of Joshua, Chapter 5, just before the battle for Jericho, there is an interesting cameo appearance by “the commander of the army of the Lord”, presumably an angel. When Joshua asks him whether he is on Joshua’s side or the enemy’s, the angel responds by saying neither. That is all we hear from this angel. Thereafter, the writer recounts how the Lord delivered the city into Joshua’s hands and commanded a wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants. I often wondered why that pretext was included at all. It seems in stark contrast to what follows. Did a later writer include it to suggest that the writer’s interpretation of what was God’s will in describing the fall of Jericho might be misleading? I don’t know. But it is an intriguing (and suspiciously overlooked) little piece.

Maybe what we need to learn to do is adopt what Tom Wright calls a hermeneutic of love. “Love”, he states, “ is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality” (Surprised by Hope, 73). In, The New Testament and the People of God he states: “In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself: and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed…[With respect to texts] this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the complement of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it necessary or desirable that it should be. At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change in oneself in relation to the other.” (p. 64)”. We do not read the Bible through a lens of love. Instead, we read to find ourselves. And, tragically, we do.

It is only by responding in love that we can end the cycle of violence. Forgiveness or tragedy are the only possible endings. And we must choose. It is, I believe, why Jesus capitulated to the cross. It was the lived expression of his teachings, as captured in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), and all of his parables. But we have refused to listen. That cross is too difficult to carry. We cannot deny ourselves the right to vengeance, to “justice”. To tragedy. How I wish we would choose the way of love for a change. The alternate doesn’t seem to have served us too well. But we won’t, of course. We like the concept of love more than the practical reality of it. Love is too hard, it asks too much. The sacrifice that love demands, and which Jesus warned us about repeatedly, is just so inconvenient. And so history repeats itself: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, British and Spanish imperialism, slavery, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Idi Amin, Apartheid, Orlando, Manchester, Syria. As I watch the chaos that dominates the news headlines, I recognise the patterns. There is an awful familiarity about our responses to that chaos. I can see where it is all going, and I suddenly have no more words.

Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?

After my last post, I was asked what I believe is a key question. Rather than responding to the comment as a comment, I have chosen to provide a slightly more extensive response, and post it for everyone to read. I believe it sets up how I intend to proceed from here anyway. I need to apologise up front for what is going to be a loooong response (although it will still be too brief: scholars have given lifetimes and written enormous volumes to say what I will do in a few pages). But the question demands it. The question was this:

“Peter, I’m interested: if Messianic claims were fairly common at that time, what makes us think that Jesus Christ was any different to the others? In other words, what evidence is there that he was/a different from the ‘fakes’? I’ve always thought that the Bible was supposedly that evidence.”

I think that the first point I need to make is this: I have never dismissed the Bible as a legitimate way to investigate the question of God. On the contrary, it is indispensable. But it is not without problems. The Bible (although it is not one book but many) is not told through the single authoritative voice of God; it is told through many voices belonging to context-bound men with limited understandings and deep prejudices. In order to obtain value from it, we need to treat it as such. I will say it again, just so that nobody can misunderstand my position: I love the Bible: it is the source of enormous insight; it introduced me to Jesus and Paul. But it is a human construction, with all the limitations that being so carries. When approaching it, as with any other text, I would caution that we resist the urge to think dualistically. The Bible is not either all truth or all lies. It is dangerous to become so eager to defend it that you become blinded to the inherent problems arising from attempting to make so many disparate voices align completely. It is, by the same token, too easy to say that because the creators of the source material have opinions when writing (because they are biased, in other words), that we ought to disregard what they have to say. By that same reasoning, you would need to argue that because you have opinions when reading, that you do not want to believe what the sources are saying (because you are biased, in other words), that you ought to disregard your own opinions. That would be ridiculous. The truth is that all writing and reading is biased and limited in perspective. But that does not invalidate writing and reading altogether. Biased does not mean false, necessarily. What I am advocating, in other words, is that we ought to be cognisant of both our own biases and the biases of the sources when attempting to make meaning of texts. I am not saying there is no meaning in the texts at all, only that deriving that meaning requires a far more active and critical engagement with the text than we are often prepared to give.

 

When it comes to the Bible, I would suggest treating it as any other historical source. I think it is as irresponsible to blindly defend the idea that the Bible is inerrant and free of bias, when all the evidence points to the contrary, as it is to dismiss it altogether because of that. Take away all the emotional baggage – whether you are Christian or not – and you will find yourself in a better position to see what the writers are saying, and to evaluate their messages critically. My critique in recent weeks, if you have understood me correctly, is not of the value of Biblical texts; my critique is of our readings of them. I am not attacking God; I am attacking our understandings of Her.

 

My defence of why I believe Jesus rose from the dead will require you to attempt to see the world through 1st Century Jewish eyes. After all, that is the context in which the church originated and through which the early Christians understood Jesus. A lot of the arguments in popular literature for why Jesus could not have risen fall apart for this reason: they frame their arguments through modern worldviews and fail to take into account how the 1st Century Jewish paradigms influenced the early church.

When other self-proclaimed Messiahs were killed by the Romans – like Simon bar-Giora in 70 AD and Simeon bar-Kochbar in AD 135 – their movements simply died, or their followers found other messiahs. Jesus’ followers are unique in that they continued to claim that Jesus was the Messiah, despite the fact that somebody like James (Jesus’ brother), for example, would have made fine candidates for an alternative. Instead, unlike the followers of these other messiahs, the followers of Jesus insisted that he was alive again. The first issue the historian would need to account for, would be why this fierce loyalty to a figure, who had very publically been killed, continued. In other words, why did Jesus’ followers behave differently from the followers of these other messiahs after his death? The second question, which follows the first, is why Jesus’ following not only continued, but spread rapidly, taking root across the then-known “civilised” world in under two decades (Paul is writing to the churches in Greece and Rome by the 50s already). By any account, that is a remarkable achievement, and one that demands an explanation.

 

The rapidity of the growth is all the more remarkable because in that short time it crossed cultural barriers. It is noteworthy enough that so many Jews were willing to significantly shift their worldviews and ways of life (I will discuss this later), but that so many Gentiles (for lack of a better word) from the Greco-Roman world were willing to adopt an essentially Jewish Messiah simply cannot be explained by the various conspiracy theories that attempt to attribute the rise of Christianity to an elaborate hoax by the disciples. And those who claim that the resurrection was written retrospectively into the gospels also need to account for this.

 

To account for the astounding growth of the movement, a helpful place to start would be to look at the differences between 1st Century Jewish praxis (the way people conducted their everyday lives), theology (what they believed about God) and ethics (how their values and beliefs found expression in their behaviour), and the early Christians’ (who had their roots in Judaism). By looking at the key shifts, perhaps we can understand why so many people abandoned the comfortable spaces of their cultural paradigms for something quite alien and, for many, perilous. It is well established in psychological studies and in philosophical ones that people tend not to shift their paradigms until the evidence against their existing worldviews becomes too much for them to ignore. (A really good explanation of this is found in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It is a landmark book in scientific philosophy, with broad application outside of the scientific field. It is, frankly, a must-read for anyone with a philosophical bent). Evidently something quite profound must have happened for so many Jews to redefine, essentially, their identities. It is critical to bear in mind that the shift from Judaism to Christianity, or for that matter from a Greco-Roman way of life to that of the early Christians, is more than just a shift in belief. It is infinitely more than the adoption of an idea. It is a complete and radical lifestyle change. It demands an explanation of the historian.

 

To fully appreciate the significance of these shifts, we need to understand 1st Century Judaism. This is going to be a woefully brief and inadequate summary, so I ask your pardon, but it will serve to illustrate the point. More detailed material is readily available for those who want more. I would recommend N.T. Wright’s series of books entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God, from which much of my argument is derived. Anyway, I will make just a few (too) brief observations that I hope will serve to bolster my argument, the relevance of which I hope to make clear later.

 

First, in the Jewish culture of the time, the Temple was the centre of Jewish life and identity. In modern times, where the temples and churches are regarded from a more utilitarian perspective, we can easily overlook just how vital the Temple was to Judaic identity. It was the place where God met people, and needed to be kept holy. The temple was indispensable to Jewish life and identity. The fact that the early Jewish converts to Christianity abandoned it is enormous.

 

Second, Jewish society was a patriarchal one, where men and women ate separately, and where women had few – if any – rights before the law. You can see this, for example, in the account in John 8, where the woman caught in adultery is brought before the rabbis for judgment. Interestingly the man (I presume the act takes two…) was not. There is no suggestion, in the text anyway, that this is unjust. Women at that time, in Jewish society and indeed much of the then-known world, did not occupy a position of equal social status to men. Indeed, it was inconceivable that they should. That the women play a central role in the resurrection story is, to say the least, curious, as is the re-ordering of such social norms that arises in the early church.

 

Third, we must understand that Jewish people did not use the Law as a means to attain salvation. They used it to distinguish themselves as a people set apart for God, amidst a world of “pagans” (I use the word with no derogatory connotations intended). In a time where that identity was under threat by a brutal Roman imperialist occupation, this nationalist agenda became even more pronounced. To this end, the Sabbath and various dietary laws were strictly observed. Jewish identity was preserved through strict adherence to the Torah, to the point, for example, that a Jew would not share a table with a non-Jew. In Galatians 2: 11-14, the following interesting incident is documented:

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

Please understand that Paul does not see Peter as a hypocrite because he (Paul) believes that eating with Gentiles is wrong. After all, Paul himself was a Pharisee before his encounter on the Damascus road, and now he lives among Gentiles as equals. Rather, he calls Peter (it is interesting that he uses his Greek name, Cephas, here) a hypocrite because Peter, who has been pushing Gentile converts to become circumcised and to obey Jewish customs, a gospel which Paul calls “really no gospel at all” in verse 7, has himself been acting in unJewish ways, contrary to Peter’s own teachings. The early church, even though they struggled to let go of these customs, as seen above, discontinued these practices, abolishing the dietary laws and observing the Lord’s day on a different day. These are not inconsequential modifications in theology. For a Jew in 1st Century Israel, these are radical. Again, this requires an explanation. I, for one, am not content to write off such enormous shifts, not only in belief, but in the structure of everyday life and social relationships, to the maintenance of a hoax.

 

The question of the rapid spread of Christianity is clearly something scholars cannot ignore. It might be understandable for a person or two to abandon what must have been a very deeply ingrained sense of identity (we can see it in the way the church in Jerusalem struggles to do so) for a way of life that looks more like a Gentile (and therefore unholy) one. But for so many to do so would be exceptional and improbable indeed, barring something very compelling to persuade them to do so. No matter what we may think of it in modern times, it would have taken something extraordinary to compel any Jew to make such a monumental change.

 

The explanation offered for all of this by the early Christians is that Jesus had been resurrected. A crucial idea to examine, then, is the 1st Century Jewish understanding of “resurrection”. This is one of those terms that has acquired a slightly different meaning in the modern church from what it would have had for Christianity’s first Jewish converts. “Resurrection”, in ancient Israel, was not simply the reanimation of a corpse. If you have read the Old and New Testaments closely, you would have noticed that there is very little about life after death. That is simply because to the Jewish people, it was only a secondary issue. It was not a question of if it would happen, but when (see, for example, the discussion in Matthew 22, where the prevalent understanding is implied in the way the encounter with the Sadducees is narrated, as well as in Jesus’ response and the people’s response to his answer). The Resurrection was also tied up in the concept of the Messiah, who was a political figure more than a spiritual one (or at least the two were very much linked). Essentially (and I simplify hugely), there was a spectrum of belief regarding the resurrection. The Sadducees on the one end believed in no afterlife. On the other end were the Pharisees, who held that the Messiah would come, he would cleanse the Temple, conquer Israel’s enemies and usher in the resurrection, where the martyrs and the prophets and all of Israel would be resurrected in incorruptible bodies, and God would come down to dwell once again with humanity. Evidence of this belief is seen in the apocryphal book of The Wisdom of Solomon:

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.  In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. (3:1-3)…

In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.  They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever. (3:7-8)

 

What the writer is saying is that the souls of the Israelites are safe in the hands of God until the day when God will raise them again to become stewards of the Earth as intended in Genesis. Note that the life after death does not happen immediately after death. It is what Wright refers to as “life after life after death”. At the appointed time – once Israel’s glory has been restored (through the Messiah, if one looks at other Scriptures) – they will be raised again to rule over the new Earth. For Jewish people, “heaven” is not the place we go to in some ethereal realm when we die. It is where God brings His dwelling place to earth. This, by the way, is evident in one of the New Testament’s few references to heaven, in Revelations, where the restored creation involves a movement of God towards earth, rather than individual souls towards God. The point is that the final dwelling place of God is here, not in some arbitrary alternative dimension. When you reread the gospels in this light, you might suddenly notice that Jesus always preaches about the “Kingdom of God”, not about ‘Heaven’, and within the paradigm of 1st Century Jewish theology, Jesus’ ministry takes on a very different meaning from the one preached in modern pulpits.

 

Essentially, the Jewish belief is that the resurrection event ushers in the dawn of a new age where God dwells with Her people here on earth. What the early church believes is that Jesus’ resurrection is the ushering in of that new age. To the non-Christian Jews, this would be incomprehensible, because the resurrection is a single event: everybody is raised at the same time, starting with the Patriarchs. It is certainly not ushered in by one person being resurrected separately in what is essentially the middle of time. For the Jews, the resurrection is an end-time event. This, for me, explains an account in the gospels that I have hitherto found confusing: the Transfiguration (recounted by three of the gospel writers: Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke 9). Whether or not you believe it happened literally, it is indicative of the belief among early Christians that the patriarchs had been raised – the resurrection had come. When the gospel writers document Jesus’ clearing of the Temple and walking among the Patriarchs in the Transfiguration they are quite clearly (for readers at the time, anyway) framing Jesus as a messianic figure. What the early Christians do, then, is move the concept of the resurrection from a more marginalised position in theology to a central one. They proceed to reshape their praxis, their theology, their symbology, their ethics around the belief that the new age has come, and it is therefore unnecessary to use the Law to define a people set apart. God is already with people. Under this new dispensation, Paul states in Galatians 3:28, as the culmination of his argument, that “[t]here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He also argues that we have died with Christ and been raised with him (Romans 6:8; Colossians 2:20 and 3:3), that we have been made new (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). From the evidence we have available, we can see that where-as the early church leaders disagreed (sometimes quite sharply) on theological questions, they never differed on the issue of Jesus’ resurrection and its meaning, which is a significant departure from the spectrum of belief regarding the resurrection in Jewish culture at the time. This shifting of emphasis, this centralising and reformed understanding of the idea of resurrection in the early church’s theology, demands a new way of interacting, where everyone is equal under God. And that, indeed, is how the early church arranges itself. For me, this radical reshaping of worldviews and lifestyles alone is sufficient evidence to suggest that at the very least, the early Christians believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And because the Jewish understanding of the resurrection involved a corporeal resurrection, not merely a spiritual one, they would have believed that Jesus had been bodily resurrected.

 

The question is, was he? It’s not easy to answer. As with the validation of any other ancient historical event, we have to choose to what extent we trust the limited sources we have. Again I need to reiterate that the historical scholar needs to attempt to remove herself from the hype around the Bible. Whether or not we admit it, we all come to the Bible with emotively bound preconceptions. Many are either determined to defend its inerrancy or, conversely, are determined to disprove it altogether. Both are forms of bias. Treat this as you would any other historical investigation.

 

First, remember that the Bible is not one source. It is several documents collated into one anthology. So in essence we have five accounts of Jesus being seen to have been resurrected (the four gospels and the Pauline letters). Paul even claims to have encountered the risen Jesus personally. The key question is “how far can we trust those claims?” As far as I know, there is little evidence outside of the claims of these “witnesses”, so we need to interrogate their stories to make a judgment about their claims. As I have argued, I am convinced that at the very least they believed they had seen him, and seen him bodily. Further than that, we need to draw our own conclusions. In history, the evidence never speaks for itself. The historian is always required to make a judgment. Here are some of my reasons for believing that Jesus was, as the early Christians claimed, resurrected.

 

First, Paul’s theology shifts from a Pharisaic outlook, with its zealous and often violent fanaticism, its desire to preserve the integrity of Jewish identity and consequent persecution of the Jews who are perceived to be selling out, to a non-violent theology based on inclusivity. In other words, he dramatically reshapes his entire worldview, based – as he claims – on an encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road (Galatians 1:11-24). Whatever you believe about his claim to have met Jesus, that is a radical transformation. Do we accept his explanation? Certainly very many people throughout the ancient world did. We will never know, I don’t think, exactly what they found so convincing about his story, but – undeniably – they believed it, because the early church positively mushroomed.

 

As far as the gospels are concerned, several things intrigue me about the accounts. I know that many of the critics would claim that the resurrection claims in the gospels are written retrospectively into the accounts in an effort to breathe life into a movement that is breaking apart after the death of its central figure. They claim that because the earliest we can date these accounts is between 65 and 110 AD, they have had ample time to revise their stories.

 

My first response to that would be that, as I have argued earlier, the growth in the early church is due almost entirely to the fact that people believed Jesus to have risen. Since Paul’s letter to the Galatians can be dated to the mid-50s, around 20 years after Jesus’ death, and since by that stage the church had already spread across the ancient world, the belief must have already been in existence a long time. It could not have been introduced later. A later introduction of the of the resurrection certainly does not account for the radical shift in the converts’ worldviews and behaviour, nor for the rapid spread of Christianity in the years following Jesus’ death.

 

But some aspects of the narrative constructs of the gospels themselves intrigue me. For example, if you are making up a story and intend for it to be taken seriously by your Jewish audience, why make the first witnesses to the risen Jesus women? All four gospels agree on this (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20), and it needs to be remembered that these accounts are separate, even though we have become accustomed to viewing them together in the Bible and thinking of them as one. It seems implausible to me that no fewer than four separate accounts name the women as the first (and least convincing) witnesses of the resurrection if they were attempting to fabricate a believable story.

I am also interested in how the risen Jesus is described. First, it is clear that the disciples were not expecting him to return from the dead, and don’t believe what they see. To this end, whereas there are constant references to how Jesus fulfilled various Scriptures through his actions in other parts of the gospel, even in his crucifixion, there are few, if any, scriptural references used to justify the resurrection story. I think this is significant. If a writer intended to validate his interpretation of Jesus as the Messiah by invoking sacred texts, which the gospel writers do frequently, why do they cease to do so at the critical point? Surely if they were only writing this in retrospectively and at a much later date, they would have had ample opportunity to find scriptural justification for their stance, and it would be logical to do so if the aim was to persuade a Jewish audience of the veracity of the claims? But they do not, which suggests to me an immediacy of response.

 

Also, the descriptions of the risen Jesus are not what one would expect. The disciples both recognise him and do not recognise him simultaneously (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24; John 20:15 and 21:4). Jesus has a body that they can touch, yet which does things bodies cannot (John 20: 19). The point is that while the body of Jesus conforms to their expectation of a bodily resurrection at the end of time, the form Jesus’ glorified body takes is entirely unexpected, and unprecedented in Jewish literature. I need to ask why, if they were making that up, they would innovate. Surely, if your aim is to persuade others to your point of view, it would be more natural to construct a narrative that your listeners would find plausible within their religious frameworks?

 

I don’t believe that an historical investigation alone can ever lead us to the truth about an historical event. There would always be questions about the reliability of the sources. And there will always be (too) much that has been lost, leading to an incomplete picture. History is fraught with subjectivity, both in the telling and in the interpretation. As Tom Wright puts it, “[w]hat the candles of historical scholarship will do is to show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn’t look like it did last night, and that would-be ‘normal’ explanations for this won’t do”. We have to do the rest. When we explore the origins of the Christian church, we find a people who radically transformed not only their beliefs and creeds, but their lifestyles, their social interactions, their ethics, their deeply entrenched cultural identities, virtually overnight in historical terms, to embrace something dangerous and alien. To us, two thousand years later, donning academic ‘detachment’ like a familiar cloak, it is easy to overlook the fact that for them, that was a life-and-death decision, and most people don’t make those decisions lightly. They claim to have done so based on testimonies that Jesus had been raised from the dead. That’s the evidence. What we conclude from that evidence remains open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peaches and the Bible

My mind sometimes works in, I think it is fair to say, unorthodox ways. I am aware that most people, when the local radio station (goodness alone knows why) decides it would be marvellous to play The Presidents of the United States of America’s Peaches, would not immediately recognise an opportunity to discuss Biblical exegesis. Evidently I am not most people: I did. As I listened to the repetitive (and here I seriously understate the case) strains of “Movin’ to the country; gonna eat a lot of peaches” (pretty much the sum-total of three long minutes’ worth of lyrics), I realised that the song would provide me with the perfect way to introduce where I want to take my blog’s discussions in coming weeks.

 

In my recent posts I have been arguing that if we are to understand what the “good news” of Christianity really is, then it is necessary to start by recognising that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is largely a fairly recent Protestant one, and that we be willing to discard it. Please understand that I am not advocating that we dismiss the Bible altogether. That would be foolish. After all, the bulk of what we know about Christian origins and the early church is contained in its pages. If you want to investigate Jesus and understand the Christian message – not the version we have of it now, distorted through the ages into the ticket-to-paradise, middle-class-social-club monstrosity we have inherited, but the one that, despite vicious persecution in a brutal, imperialist Greco-Roman world, where Messianic claims were reasonably commonplace, took root and flourished, transforming Western worldviews – then studying the Bible is imperative. Just because I reject the claims that it is inerrant, it does not mean that I see it as worthless. Quite the opposite; it is vital to establishing a sound Christian theology. Rather, I am suggesting that we ought to approach the Bible as we would any other text: critically.

 

Generally speaking, people are quite lazy and naïve readers. If a text seems to resonate with our worldview, we regard it as truthful. If not, or if we do not understand it, we regard it with suspicion or dismiss it outright. Often we think dualistically. Either something is right or it is wrong. Its “rightness” is determined by how closely we perceive its ideas to resemble our own. Wrongness entitles us to ignore it. But things are seldom that simple. I fell into that trap the first time I heard Peaches. I like my music to have (even marginally) intelligent lyrics, or failing that, to have one of the band members demonstrate exceptional musical skill on an instrument, hence my (possibly unfair) disregard for Katy Perry, for example. So a song that expressed, as its central concern, a desire to relocate to a rural setting and, once there, to consume significant quantities of fruit, practically invited mockery. But my “reading” was irresponsible and lazy. Not that my assessment was off, necessarily. I still dislike the song, but I don’t think it’s fair to label it “bad” because it doesn’t suit my taste. Maybe Peaches is simply about a fructose addict looking for his next fix. Maybe, though, there is something more.

 

So how ought I to approach the text? Well, the obvious first step is to attempt to comprehend what is being said. That can itself be relatively tricky. For example, was the relocation to the country voluntary, or was some hostile agrarian force with a predilection for peaches force-feeding some unfortunate subordinate, causing him to bemoan his impending fate? Does the high volume of peach consumption indicate a preference for peaches, or does it rather suggest a paucity in the supply of alternative deciduous fruit? Does the writer believe that peaches consumed in a more natural setting are somehow superior to those consumed in an urban environment? Mere comprehension is not always a straightforward as it might initially appear. And, going on the text alone, we do not have sufficient information to make any sort of definitive arguments either way.

 

Similarly, when reading the Scriptures, it is seldom sufficient to rely on the text alone. Without an understanding of both the context in which the passage was written, and the context in which we read it, the text can be made to say pretty much anything. But a Christian culture that emphasises personal salvation, and which believes that the Bible speaks with one inerrant voice – God’s – is underpinned by the (probably subconscious) assumption that because God actually wrote it, the “meaning” must be clear. The “fact” that God uses it to speak to me personally discourages me from interrogating the validity of the message I receive from the text. We don’t bother with context, probably because at some level we are suspicious of it. It is easier to cling to the belief that both we and the texts are neutral. After all, our faith makes us feel better, safe even, and we don’t want to risk that by probing too much. The result is a Christian culture that believes in “the” meaning of Scriptures, where “the” meaning is whatever I need it to be, and utterly beyond questioning.

 

But context matters. I know that we live in a postmodern culture, where the meaning that I make of a text is as valid as the meaning the author did, where the text can take on its own life, independent of the author’s intentions, and legitimately speak in different ways to different people. But I believe if we are going to base our theologies, our lifestyles, our ethical codes on a text, then we ought to make some effort to understand what is actually being said. The New Testament, for example, contains two very different and largely incompatible theologies: Paul’s and the church in Jerusalem’s. It is not sufficient to say, “The Bible says…”. You cannot frame a coherent theology around the idea that the Law is both part of the problem (as Paul argues) and part of the solution (as the church in Jerusalem argues), which you would have to do if the Bible was one, God-authored book. You certainly cannot meld them if you have understood either side of the argument properly ie. If you have actually read the New Testament. To do so implies a schizophrenic God.

 

If I am to do justice to Peaches I need to look beyond initial impressions; I need to explore context. How do I locate it in within late 20th Century popular culture, and alternative rock culture particularly? Do the band’s other songs provide insight into my reading of Peaches? Could the song possibly be parodic in nature? Certainly both alternative and punk bands make frequent use of parody and satire, and The Presidents of the Unites States of America have made use of parody themselves in that same album. If so, were there specific events or prevalent worldviews in society that would have prompted such a response? Is the song’s message consistent with the band’s outspoken support of the Democrats? If not, why not? Are there other sources, apart from the band’s own work, that could help us make sense of the song? Could John Denver’s Blow Up Your TV (quoted below) have had any influence, and if so, why?:

 

“Blow up your TV, throw away your paper,

Go to the country, build you a home.

Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches,

Try and find Jesus on your own”

 

Is this similarity more than coincidence? If so, was that conscious? Has the writer himself said anything about the text? In the case of Peaches, yes. Chris Ballew said that it was inspired by a childhood memory of waiting under a peach tree for a sweetheart. Was he truthful? If not, why not? Has anybody else written about the text? If so, how reliable are they as sources?

 

If it is obvious how valuable these questions are to understanding a song as simple as Peaches, how much more useful would they be in investigating the gospels or the Pauline letters? Sadly, that is a bit too much like hard work, and far too threatening, for many. Instead, we blindly trust in others to think for us, despite the wealth of information that is readily accessible to everyone in the technological age.

 

One of the considerations we ought to make when investigating a text is how our own mind-sets and the predominant worldviews in our own cultures affect the meaning-making process. I need to acknowledge that my engagement with a text is never neutral. I come with certain expectations of the text. Countless studies on the brain have demonstrated that we see what we want to or expect to see, and can be blind to evidence that contradicts those expectations. For example, I come to music (and especially alternative rock) with an expectation of a degree of intelligence. Three lines into Peaches, I had made up my mind that I could leave that planet because there were no signs of sentient lifeforms. I could easily have not looked for evidence to contradict my impressions. I think that is the path most would have taken.

 

When we engage with texts, we need to acknowledge that we have biases, and that those biases influence what we see. I may well be overly critical and dismissive of, or too quick to accept what is presented because I have certain agendas, or have had certain experiences. That can be devastating when it affects how a person reads a “holy text”. For instance, if one is homophobic or racist or misogynistic, it is easy to latch onto those verses in Scripture that seem to validate those biases. The consequences of that, as I noted before, can be catastrophic.

 

I also need to identify which key concepts or terms may have had a different meaning for the creator of the text than they do for me. Differences in understanding of central terms could result in significantly different interpretations of a text. How, for example, might my South African picture of the “country” differ from the Presidents’? Are there political or social connotations to “country” and country living for PUSA that I would be unaware of?

 

I think modern Western Christianity has failed to take this into account when reading the Scriptures. We have assumed that ideas like “The Law”, “salvation”, or “eternal life” had the same meanings for 1st Century Jews as they do for us today. Quite simply, they don’t. And if we are going to reconstruct what Jesus or Paul believed, then we dare not make that assumption. For the most part, for example, 1st Century Jews did not believe that obedience to the law led to salvation. Even the concept of salvation had political connotations for them that we are largely ignorant of. For the Pharisees and the people of Jesus’ time, salvation was not so much spiritual and personal as it was political and communal. We have, for too long, been reading the Scriptures through our own lenses, not exploring the ideas through the filter of 1st Century Judaism. I think if we did that – if we built our theologies (and consequently our ethics) around what Paul actually meant, as opposed to what we think he meant, or around what a 16th Century Protestant worldview has taught us he meant – then I suspect Christianity would look very different. Better.

 

So in the next few weeks I am going to try distil for you what I am reading. I want to understand what a 1st Century Judaic context – the one that influenced what and how Jesus and Paul taught – looks like. And if you are up to it, I would love to have you along. Come with me to the country, away from all that is comfortable and familiar to you. I hope you like peaches.

Rejecting Perfection: What If We Were Meant to Fail?

On one of my business trips, some colleagues and I lay outside on the lawn at the bed and breakfast we were staying at, looking up at the stars. Somebody remarked that a heaven where there was no pain or hardship would not be a heaven at all. She pointed out that all of her best attributes were forged in suffering, that so much of her growth was born in discomfort, and that any space that prohibited growth would be sterile and stagnant. She wanted no part of that.

 

I have been thinking a lot about that conversation ever since. It is true, in my experience, that we learn more from our failures than our successes. We understand how things work better if we fail again and again, learning from our failures and making progress, than we do if we simply get things right the first time. I love playing chess, for example, and am reasonably good. But the most rapid growth in my development as a player came when I joined a chess club where I was completely outclassed by the other, more experienced players. I lost the majority of my games when I joined. A year later, I was awarded the annual trophy for the most improved player at their prize-giving ceremony. In a culture that worships perfection, the “most improved” trophy is one that few actually want to receive. When I was teaching, I saw that a lot. “Most improved” was normally interpreted to mean ‘completely talentless but tries very hard, and we don’t want to demoralise the poor little tyke, so we have to give him something”. But I was proud of that trophy. I could see how far I had come. I had not stagnated in my game, which I suspect would have been the case had I been champion.

 

Have you ever watched Idols? I am often amazed that some of the entrants are so oblivious to the fact that, as far as singing goes at least, they are marginalised ability-wise. I am sure that, in part anyway, it is the consequence of well-meaning friends and family, who didn’t want to offend them by gently discouraging them from pursuing that particular avenue of pleasure. And so they find themselves being humiliated on national television because, until that point, their singing had never “failed”. I admire those would-be Mariah Careys and Michael Jacksons who respond to the failure by taking singing lessons and returning the following year (invariably failing again, but failing ‘better’). Eventually they seem to understand that their talents are best expressed in the shower, and never return. I believe they have been freed to pursue dreams that may be more realistic and thus rewarding for them. But they need to be crushed first before they can see that. One of life’s truths, and one that runs counter to our sensibilities, is this: failure is not only necessary, it is good.

 

Spiritually speaking, I think that is true as well. If I consider Jesus’s relationships, he was always less critical of those who had been branded as sinners than he was of those who believed that they had no sin. Moral perfection was, in so many of Jesus’ teachings and stories, a hindrance to spiritual growth rather than a laudable goal. The Law was never intended to be a goal in itself. How else do we interpret Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Mark 2:27, when he is confronted about the fact that his hungry disciples had picked grain on the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”? Now if we are to consider Jesus sinless, when on occasions like this he undeniably contravenes the Law, then our current theological frameworks have either misunderstood what sin is or have failed to grasp the purpose of the Law. Probably both. This much seems clear: God never intended the Law to be a standard of holiness to aspire to, so much as a set of guidelines to promote quality of life.

 

If quality of life is more important than strict adherence to the rules, that has significant ramifications for our theologies. For one thing, if our quality of life is enhanced by failure as opposed to success, maybe we were meant to fail. It always did seem a bit odd to me that God would create Adam and Eve, knowing that they would fail but doing it anyway, and then punishing them for the inevitable outcome, which She alone could have prevented. If failure was not only necessary, but good, then the very act of creating humanity makes a lot more sense. The Law makes a lot more sense. He (and the inconsistency in my use of gender pronouns is deliberate) would have understood that, like children, we would need the security that firm boundaries provide in order to develop a sense of identity and order. But She always intended us to move beyond the boundaries of the Law. We cannot move beyond ourselves, and truly love others, until we actually have a self to let go of. The Law helps us find ourselves. Often by breaking that same Law and experiencing the natural consequences. But, to quote Richard Rohr (Falling Upward, pg 5), “[o]nce you have had your narcissistic fix [what he later describes as the need to look good to ourselves and others, which is a typical trait of religious puritanism], you have no real need to protect your identity, defend it, prove it, or assert it.” Only then are you freed to love.

 

This must alter how we understand the cross. If failure is not only inevitable, but necessary and good, then punishing us, let alone the innocent Jesus in our place, is profoundly unjust. The gospel writers make only two axiomatic claims about God: God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is light (1 John 1:5). Neither of those is compatible with an understanding of the cross that pits a monstrously angry Father against her beloved Son. The cross is far more than a free pass into Heaven, despite our inability to keep the rules. It is a gift infinitely more valuable than fire insurance. It is God’s liberating us from our enslavement to the “curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:10-14).

 

Paul reiterates it over and over in his letters: we die to the old self, the one incapable of seeing that life lies beyond the boundaries of the Law. Does that mean we are free to sin? Absolutely not! (Romans 6). We need the Law to help us understand what it is to have life. And the life God promises – true, fulfilling life in abundance (John 10:10) – necessitates that we learn to let go of self (Colossians 3:10-11) and love (Galatians 5:6; 14). And the Law, seen as an end in itself, does not allow for that (Galatians 5:22-23). The Law is a necessary step in our development, but it is not the end of it. We find life beyond it, not in keeping it. It is a merely a foundation for the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. That is what Jesus showed us. His rejection of holiness-code-based religion, and the brutal exposure of what that system really offers, illustrated in his death, opened the way (John 14:6)for us to catch a glimpse of the true nature of God.

 

As you ponder the cross and the resurrection this Easter, I pray that you may see God. Not as a smiting, vengeful dictator, but as a giver of life. I pray earnestly that you may see beyond the lies and half-truths, the logical and theological inconsistencies on which our understandings of the atonement rest, to the indescribable beauty that is visible, for those who will see, through the anguish of that terrible weekend, and in the promise contained in his resurrection. Shalom.

 

Image accessed from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/learning-through-failure-learn-actually-fail-dan-walker-cfa on12/4/2017

A Hermeneutic From Below

The problem with believing that God was punishing Jesus on the cross for our sins, as Michael Hardin points out, is that it doesn’t take sin nearly seriously enough. It limits the power of sin to the personal. In other words, it implies that the primary problem with sin is that I will be harshly punished for what I have done wrong. By reducing sin to actions, we negate the power of that which drives the actions. By focusing on the outward manifestation of the disease, we neglect the far more perilous causes of the disease. In other words, if the primary purpose of the cross was for God to punish our sins through Jesus, then the atonement is incomplete and superficial. And I don’t believe that God would settle for that.

 

I think we need to step out of the spiritual complacency that the “personal salvation” gospel engenders, and start to actively seek God. Only then will we find him. And for me, the logical starting point for that is the Scriptures. Now I know that statement may seem to contradict what I said in my previous post, but it does not. I have not been arguing that we must dispense with the Bible altogether, only that we must approach it in the proper way, or else our theologies will inevitably become rooted in fear and violence. Much of the modern Western approach to reading the Scriptures is entirely passive. Because the Bible has come to be regarded as the inerrant word of God and the only worthy guide for our lives, we have become entirely uncritical of it and assumed that our readings of it are accurate. God speaks to us through it and it only remains for us to obey.

 

But this approach is deeply flawed, as I explained in my last post. And it makes us lazy. We forget that interaction with a text is never a monologue, but always – at least – a dialogue. The reader is integral to the meaning-making process, not simply a passive recipient. Reading is never a neutral process. We always approach a text with our own cultural filters, and make sense of it through the lenses of our personal experiences, fears, desires and expectations. Even if the Bible was the inerrant word of God, we ourselves are far from infallible, and so could never experience an inerrant reading of it.

 

There are, for instance, numerous terms that Jesus and Paul use, which we understand in very different ways, because we live two thousand years later. We have come to understand ideas like “resurrection” and “born again” in ways that Jesus never did. But our cultural filters, which have become more attuned to 16th Century Protestant theology than 1st century Judeo-Christian theology, have normalised our understandings of these concepts in very different ways. Unless we immerse ourselves in the ideas that shaped the ideas of the time, we can never understand fully what Jesus’ teachings, or Paul’s writings, are saying.

 

One of the unhelpful modern layers in Biblical hermeneutics (how we interpret the text) is privilege. Among the unfortunate consequences of growing up in relative comfort is the tendency to develop an inflated sense of one’s own importance. And so it becomes easy to make the assumption that one’s own personal purity is somehow important to God. Let me posit this: that if God is so affronted by your sin that he feels compelled to act on it or else He cannot be at peace, then He is as much a slave to sin as you are. It is below God to be affronted by your sin. But in a universe that revolves around you, that understanding of the cross would seem perfectly logical.

 

But now try to imagine a different hermeneutic. Forget about reading the Scriptures in a way that allows you to feel complete after you have sung a few choruses on Sunday and let the preacher’s words assuage your guilt. Forget a church that can exist for middle-class fellowship and home groups and tea after the service. Forget a reading of the Scriptures that requires of you only that you reflect on your own failure to be perfect, and where the primary purpose of discipleship is to grow in personal holiness, and where if others are necessary at all, it is only to hold you accountable on the quest for personal piety. Forget the temporary vindication you feel when you participate in a church outreach programme, or the validation of your goodness you experience because you listen to “Christian” music or read “Christian” books. Dare to imagine that God’s purpose for your life demands more of you than imposing your version of faith on “sinners”. Try to recognise your hermeneutic of privilege for what it is. It is a reading of the Scriptures that perpetuates a mindset of empire. It is designed to legitimise your power, and to render it invisible and natural. But empire is always built on the exploitation of others, through the blood and the sweat of those who are powerless to resist.

 

Now imagine a hermeneutic from below. Imagine how the Scriptures would be read by the homeless, by the prostitutes, by the racially marginalised, by the disabled, by the LGTBI community, by the terminally ill, by the hungry, by the poor, by those under the heel of your boot as you justify their suffering in the name of pleasing your God. How comfortable would these people feel if they walked into your church?

 

Do you want to know which reading Jesus supports? Look at the company he kept. Jesus’ ministry did not centre around the temple, the church of the day, but around the tables in the homes of the tax-collectors and the prostitutes, in the company of the sick and the illiterate and the Other. Jesus constantly affirmed the marginalised. He was no cultural imperialist. In his life and his teachings, he consistently challenged the notion that godliness was the domain of the holy elite. It was an idea he died for.

 

The truth is that we need to be delivered from our righteousness. We need to stop thinking in terms of “I used to be sinful but now I am saved; I used to be on the wrong side of God, but now I am in His good books”. We ought to remind ourselves that it was precisely in their best moments, when they were being most obedient to their laws, that the Pharisees demanded the crucifixion of Jesus, or that Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. Discipleship means more than merely believing about Jesus or even in him. It means believing him. We love him when we do what he commands: love one another (John 15). We cannot claim to love him if we do not obey him, if we refuse to love.

 

So we need to critique the Bible. It is absolutely essential that we subordinate it to the true Word of God, Jesus. Any reading of the Scriptures that does not do more than promote a holiness code has no place in the Kingdom. The problem of sin is not so insignificant that it pertains only to our personal salvation. It is a systemic problem – it is rooted in the nature of society, of our interactions with other people – and it delivers only death. As long as our spiritual purpose is to be holy, then we can allow ourselves to divide people into the good and the bad (isn’t it coincidental that we are always somehow among the good?), and on that basis to justify violence and exploitation. As long as our spiritual goal is a ticket to Paradise, how we think about and treat others is irrelevant,

 

But if you read the Scriptures carefully, if you filter it through Jesus , who said: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:15, my emphasis), you will begin to see how God speaks. And what She says is unmistakeable. It is the promise of the most difficult journey you can make, of a cross that you must bear with Jesus if you are to call yourself his disciple. But it is also a promise of hope: a renunciation of blood sacrifice and vengeance. It is the picture of God, dead on the cross at the hands of a humanity that believed it was doing what was right. It is how God forgives us our righteousness. When you look at the Scriptures through the eyes of Jesus, one word resonates clearly (let he who has ears, hear): Shalom. Peace.

Towards a Christ-Centred Theology

We did not arrive here by accident. Make no mistake about it, the mess that is the world was created by our own actions, rooted in our beliefs and values, shaped by the way we think about who we are and how we ought to relate to others. If our misogyny allows us to perpetuate a rape culture, if our suspicion – if not outright hatred – of anyone Other breeds racism and discrimination, if our fear of sexuality permits us to ostracise the LGTBI community, then it is allowed to do so because our God endorses it. We find justification for our cruelty and hatred in the fact that it is divinely sanctioned. Brexit, Trump, and Apartheid are not aberrations in our history, they are the natural consequences of theologies that authorise violence. We did not arrive here by accident.

 

And one of the chief culprits is the Bible. More specifically, the way that we read the Bible. The line of thinking that has dominated Western Christian thought regarding the Bible since the Reformation has been that it is the inerrant or infallible Word of God. This belief has necessitated that we find one voice – the voice of God – in the Scriptures, that we find ways to make each verse agree with every other verse, else we find ourselves with the problem of a God with a severe mental disorder, vacillating between complete love and retributive wrath. We have had to manufacture ways to make the disparate voices agree. And, frankly, we have failed. People who might otherwise have come to understand just how much God loves them, have been turned away because of our dogged determination to defend a morally reprehensible picture of God. Rightly so. And it is time we owned up to our mistake. It is time that we faced up to the consequences of our idolatrous beliefs surrounding the Bible.

 

It is easy to spout vitriolic condemnation of the gay community when throughout the Old Testament, God is commanding genocide, wiping out the Amalekites, the Midianites, the Amorites and any other –ites unfortunate enough to stand in the way of God’s chosen people. When the Old Testament writers gleefully advocate taking the infants of the enemy and smashing their heads against rocks, when the conquering Israelites take the enemy virgins as spoils of war, then it seems relatively minor to justify women and child abuse. When God is raining fire and brimstone on entire cities because they would not believe, it is easy to defend colonialism – the violent extermination of entire cultures in the name of Christianising them. But I don’t believe that any of this is what God wants. And that is why I am opposed to a Bible-centred theology. No good can – indeed has – come from that. Because the Bible, all too frequently, glorifies violence. You can cloak it in all the apologetics you want, but that is the bottom line: The Bible is a book of blood.

 

A Jesus-centred theology, now that is a different thing altogether. I can get behind that. But I don’t believe that you can have a theology that is both Bible-centred and Christ-centred. You have to choose. Jesus completely eschews violence; both in his conduct and in his teachings, the emphasis is consistently on restoration of relationships, on forgiveness, on creatively solving conflict in peaceful ways. The Bible, on the other hand, no matter how you may try to justify it, does not. And unless God is two-faced and mentally unstable, both cannot be God’s revelation of His divine nature. God cannot be simultaneously violent and opposed to violence. Can you honestly say you can picture Jesus commanding genocide; exhorting his followers to destroy entire cultures, wiping out every man, woman and child, and – in some cases – even the livestock? Not if you have understood what he stood for in any even rudimentary way. Not if you can recall how he treated the woman caught in adultery, the stories he told about the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, the inordinate amount of time (as far as the Pharisees were concerned, anyway) that he spent in the company of prostitutes and tax-collectors. Not if you study how he handled his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Even his enemies knew him as an advocate of peace (Luke 22:52-53). The question, then, is: which of these ought we to use as a framework on which to build our theologies? Do you choose to believe Jesus when he claimed that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father (John 14:9), or do you cling to a 16th Century doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible?

 

I am not dismissing the Bible. I am asking you to think about it differently, to be willing to see it through the eyes of Jesus, not of Reformer theologians; to see that it does not speak with one monolithic voice, but outlines a debate about the nature of God that spans millennia. It juxtaposes priestly voices that insist that God requires sacrifice to be appeased (most of Leviticus, for example), with prophetic voices that insist that those sacrifices are not only meaningless, but abhorrent to God (Hosea 6:6; Psalm 40:6-8; Jeremiah 7: 22-23; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6: 6-8; Matthew 9:13); it invites you into the fierce conflict between Paul’s theology (outlined in his letters and in the gospels) and the theology of the Jerusalem church (in Peter’s letters and in the book of James), which is documented in Acts 15 and 21, and in Galatians 2. By no stretch of the imagination does the Bible promote only one theology. It is a debate, and one that does not ask you to agree with all perspectives, but asks you to take sides. To insist that the books of the Bible speak with one voice is to misunderstand and completely disregard the sharp points of disagreement in their ways of understanding God, and to hugely diminish and problematise our own understanding of God as a result.

 

So where does Jesus stand? Which side does he pick? Throughout his ministry, when Jesus quotes the Scriptures, he frequently emphasises the gracious and non-retributive nature of God, either by omitting the retributive parts of the Scripture altogether, or by adding to the Scriptures. He certainly does not treat them like the infallible and inerrant revelation of God’s will to humanity. That was a human addition, and an unhelpful one at that. If you don’t believe me, go and look at all the times that Jesus quotes Scripture. Also look up the original Scriptures he quotes from. Notice what he emphasises, what he adds and what he leaves out. Think about what the implications are of the fact that he feels the freedom to do that at all.

 

And once you have let go of the Bible idol, you will begin to see the cross differently. You will see that the story of the cross is not one of God rejecting Jesus because of our sin, and punishing him instead of us. Sin is a disease, and no disease can be cured by punishing it out of the afflicted. Sin requires a doctor, not a judge. The problem with sin was never that we were naughty and needed to be punished. It was that sin robbed us of life, trapped us in an endless cycle of blood and death, rendered us incapable of interacting properly with God because we could never do so without fear and blood, without being so focused on our own inadequacy that we lost sight of His all-sufficiency and love. At the cross, we see how God wishes it all to end: not with retribution and punishment, not with fire and blood, but –as evidenced in the first words the risen Jesus speaks to those disciples who themselves rejected and betrayed him – in peace. Shalom.

 

We did not arrive here by accident. But we can change we go. We can let go of our blood-centred theologies and carry the cross that Jesus asked his followers to carry: the gospel of peace. The sacrifice of forgiveness. Imagine what a world would look like if our actions were rooted in love, not in retribution or fear. Imagine a place where serving one another out of love and respect, as fellow children of grace, took precedence over morality codes and blood sacrifice. Imagine a God that looks more like Jesus than Molech. We can end up there. That’s the gospel. But we need to choose, a little more wisely, the object of our faith: Jesus or the Bible.

Rejecting the Inerrancy of Scripture

The Bible is not the word of God. Let’s get that out of the way right up front. I think that if we are to make genuine advances in our understanding of who God is, and why He would choose to become human in the person of Jesus, we need to relinquish our grip on that cherished idol. The Bible is not God’s revelation of himself to humanity; it is not a manual for spiritual living; it is not the benchmark for determining God’s will against which all our beliefs and our ethics ought to be judged. That singular honour belongs to Jesus. Anything else is idolatry.

 

In fact, the Bible never claims to be the word of God. Not once. The closest that those who defend this view can come to such a claim is to be found in 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” First, perhaps the obvious needs to be stated: the writer is not referring to the Bible as we know it, which won’t exist in that form for several hundred years more. Second, I do not believe that the writer sees the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God. He says that they are inspired by God (which is a significant departure from their being authored by God), but sees in the them a utilitarian purpose – as a guide to wise living –  rather than a divine revelation of God to humanity.

 

On the other hand, the gospels are very clear that Jesus is God’s word:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 1- 4; 14)

 

The distinction is important. Jesus is 100% God’s revelation, without ‘interference’ from humanity. The Scriptures are human dialogues and human perceptions of divine events. And the problem with humans is that when they interact with the divine, they tend to descend into religion. And religion always ends in bloodshed. The Scriptures, over and over again, paint a picture of a quest to know God that ultimately results in innocent blood being shed in order to appease his wrath. It is a picture wholly at odds with the ethics and the theology of Jesus, as seen in the gospels. So which do we trust? It seems clear to me that if Jesus – and not the Bible – is God’s revelation of himself to us, then we ought to be interpreting the Scriptures through the lens that is Jesus, rather than attempting to understand Jesus through the lens that is the Bible. That is not to say that there is not much about God that is revealed in the Scriptures, but we need to understand that sometimes the theology in the Bible is terribly wrong, when set against the true Word, Jesus.

 

Even Jesus did not use regard the Scriptures as inerrant and complete. He used Scriptures with a recklessness that would appal many modern conservatives, just as it did many of the teachers of the law during his own lifetime.

 

I owe the following example, and the insights that follow, to a series that Michael Hardin taught on how to read the Bible. It is the third instalment in the series, and can be viewed here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dn6zV2IIkXw ). It provides much insight into how we ought to understand the Scriptures.

 

To provide the context for this passage from Luke 4, it is the Jubilee year, and Jesus is preaching to a Jewish nationalist crowd with very strong anti-Roman sentiments. They believed that the promised Messiah would crush the Romans and liberate the Jews. During the Jubilee year (once every 49 years), Jewish law required debtors to cancel the debts that were owed to them, to provide a clean slate, so to speak, to those who were indebted to them. Jesus’ identification of himself as the Messiah on this occasion, and using the text he does, in the way he does, speaks volumes about the character of God.

 

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,     because he has anointed me     to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners     and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

 

Jesus preaches a sermon that espouses peace and social justice, making reference to a text that those hearing would have clearly understood to be a Messianic prophecy. According to this translation of verse 22, it seems to be well-received. And then something inexplicable happens. Jesus loses it. He berates them for rejecting him and they become so furious that they try to kill him. What possible explanation can we provide for why Jesus becomes incensed at the people’s seemingly favourable response to his message, and for why – even though Jesus might seem to be unreasonably vexed – the crowd’s disposition turns so suddenly from adulation to homicide?

 

If we were entrenched in the mindset that the Bible is infallible, we would probably miss why this passage is so powerful. The key, Hardin asserts, lies in the translation of part of verse 22 from the Greek: πάντες  ἐμαρτύρουν  αὐτῷ  which can be translated as “all bore witness to him”. The word αὐτῷ, though, is in the dative case, and could equally accurately be translated as “all bore witness against him”. But because it was Jesus teaching, and the evangelical translators could not possible conceive of the notion that he would not be well-received, the account becomes translated as “they spoke well of him”, rather than the probably more accurate “they spoke against him”.

 

And then suddenly we see that it was, in fact, the “gracious words that came from his lips” that made the crowd angry! Why? At this point we see how Jesus treats Scripture. If you go back to the Isaiah passage that Jesus quotes, we notice a very important omission. Absolutely deliberately, Jesus has taken a well-known passage, claimed that he is God and is bringing this prophecy to fulfilment, and is leaving out an idea that the Jewish nationalists in the audience would have regarded as quintessential to their understanding of the Messiah. The original, found in Isaiah 61, reads (my emphasis):

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

because the Lord has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim freedom for the captives

and release from darkness for the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

    and the day of vengeance of our God

 

The power behind the “gracious words” that rile the people to the point that they wish to kill him lies in what Jesus left out, more than what he quoted. It is not because the people were opposed to God ministering to the socially marginalised that they became incensed. It was Jesus’ tacit suggestion that the Messiah was not going to smite the Roman oppressor, and more than that, that the Messiah’s mission was not concerned with retribution for the suffering of the Jewish people, that stirred them up.

 

In this high-voltage atmosphere it is easy to lose sight of another important facet of the narrative: the manner in which Jesus treats Scripture. He does not benchmark himself against it. He does not use the words of the prophet Isaiah to inform how he ought to think about God. In fact, he uses himself as the yardstick by which to measure the validity of the Scripture. As the one true word of God, he is able to render completely nonviable the parts of the prophet’s words that are not aligned with the nature of God, as evident in himself. And he utterly dismisses notions of vengeance. There is no “God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it!” mentality with Jesus, when it comes to reading the Scriptures. Because he does not view these documents as the inerrant word of God, he feels no compulsion to accept everything in them. And indeed throughout Jesus’ ministry, we see evidence of him reinterpreting Scripture, adding to and subtracting from it as he sees fit. If he is himself the Word of God, that makes sense.

 

I find it ironic. Whenever a preacher, like Jesus, dares to suggest that God will have nothing to do with vengeance, but instead proposes that God wants to allow us to start again; whenever somebody preaches that God is about love and not about retributive justice, it angers people to the point that they become nasty. I see it time and time again – in this story, as well is in the internet responses to any of the sermons on peace and love preached by theologians I have come to respect (Brad Jersak, Michael Hardin, Tom Wright, James Alison, J. Denny Weaver): religion and God will always struggle to find a meeting place. Religion demands blood. But Jesus, the true Word of God, rejects violence.

 

So our journey must begin with our willingness to let go of the idea that the Bible is the infallible word of God. It certainly has value, but we need to accept that it is steeped in religion, as human understandings of God always are, and religion is invariably a bloody affair. In Jesus, though, we see God incarnate, as he reveals himself to us, and in the Jesus narrative outlined in the gospels, we get a glimpse of how God interacts with religion. We are faced with two choices, really: either we must see the Bible as the flawless framework through which to understand the life, thinking, death and resurrection of Jesus, in which case we are bound to find a wrathful deity who needs to be appeased; or we must see Jesus as the perfect framework through which we understand the Bible – our religious attempts to understand God through blood – in which case we shall find a God who forgoes vengeance; who never sanctions violence; who embraces the socially marginalised; who disregards moral virtue as the quintessence of spiritual virtues; who opposes systemic inequality; whose grace extends even to the Romans, to his vilest enemies; who – even as all of our violence is directed at Him, because we cannot accept that God loves those we regard as unlovable, chooses to forgive; who inexplicably and abundantly surprises us with love. The two frameworks do not co-exist happily. We are compelled to a decision: religion or God. For me, anyway, it seems simple.