Intro to looking at the human faces of God

I begin with quoting the words from the blog post of James Woodword (quoting Peter Rollins) which summarise some of my (not-so-frequently articulated, developing) views on the nature of the Bible (adding my additions in square brackets): “The Bible itself is a dynamic text full of poetry, prose, history, law and myth all clashing together in a cacophony of voices. We are presented with a warrior God [e.g. in Joshua’s “conquest narrative” (more an ideological manifesto than history)] and a peacemaker [e.g. in Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” (probably a secondary compilation by the evangelist who gathered into his discourses oral tradition that at one time was scattered)]; a God of territorial allegiance and a God who transcends all territorial divides; an unchanging God [e.g. Malachi 3:6: “I Yahweh do not change“] and a God who can be redirected [e.g. Exodus 32:14: “And Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people”)]; a God of peace and a God of war; a God who is always watching the world and a God who fails to notice the oppression against Israel in Egypt.

In the Bible we find a vast array of competing stories concerning the character of God that are closely connected to the concrete circumstances of those who inhabit the narrative. Just as personality tests offer us an unrealistic image of ourselves as a single whole, overlooking the fact that we are not only many different things in many different situations but also changing over time, so Western theology has all too often reduced the beauti­fully varied and complex descriptions of God found in the Bible to a singular reading that does violence to its vibrant nature.

The result is not an account that is hopelessly ideological, but rather a text that shows the extent to which no one ideology or group of ideologies can lay hold of the divine. The text is not only full of fractures, tensions and contradictions but informs us that fractures, tensions and contradictions [are expected and perhaps inevitable on this earth].”

If some of these “problem texts” resulting from dictatorial conceptions of Yahweh (e.g. as a tribal warrior god) are more mirror images of our worst selves (rather than an accurate portrayal of the divine nature), is there a way to conceive of God that, while rejecting it all being the literal words of God in an authoritarian fashion, still in some sense sees the Bible as authoritative (i.e. as able to be trusted as transmitting truth even through error)? I think so. I think that there’s a “still more excellent way”; namely, a conception of the divine as difference in harmony (“harmony” defined as not forcing agreement but being united, and seeing the individual value of those ‘others’ to our ‘self’, despite disagreements), representing an ontology – an divine reality – that calls upon humanity to better ourselves and to strive to become the mirror image of the sacred reality. (For those well-read in church history who might accuse me of being semi-Pelagian here, don’t be too quick to judge by appearances as I will deal with this issue in a later post.)

I think that this conception of the divine, you’ll be unsurprised to learn if you know me well enough, is best found in Jesus – a humble, unprivileged Jewish rabbi from the insignificant town of Nazareth who believed that he was Israel’s Messiah that would rescue his people from the oppression of the Roman empire…except he completely subverted what the anthropologist James C. Scott has called the “public transcript” which endorsed the Pax Romana (“peace” of Rome) and its imperial order and operated within its hierarchical, dominating assumptions, while at the same time making allusions to an offstage “hidden transcript,” discernible by the dominated classes. This hidden transcript criticized Rome for failing to live up to the official transcript but also spoke of Rome’s impending doom at the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. Most importantly, this hidden transcript spoke, shockingly and scandalously, of this kingdom being ushered through this Jewish rabbi’s crucifixion as well as, three days later (it was believed by several eyewitnesses who saw an empty tomb), his resurrection from the dead. When, after this paradigm-shifting event, Jesus’ disciples over a span of 35-65 years wrote (ancient) biographies on this significance of this man’s works and deeds, what did they portray Jesus’ kingdom as looking like?

As Jesus spoke to the “subjects” of his kingdom in the aforementioned “Sermon on the Mount”, he began with the following message: “How blissful the destitute, abject in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom…how blissful those who mourn, for they shall be aided. How blissful the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. How blissful those who hunger and thirst for what is right, for they shall feast. How blissful the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. How blissful the pure in heart, for they shall see God. How blissful the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:3-8; my translation). In his typical paradoxical statements of reversal, this rabbi also proclaimed that those in his kingdom would reign by serving (see, e.g., the parabolic-like story of Jesus enacting the meaning of the eucharist through washing his disciples’ feet [John 13:1-20]); that “those who exalt themselves are humbled and those who humble themselves are exalted” [Luke 14:11, recalling Ezekiel’s criticism of the religious leaders of his time, Ezek 21:26].

Do these ethical teachings – which we commend nowadays almost intuitively even if we don’t identify as Christian – just make Jesus an enlightened rabbi? Or was he more than that – was he, as the latest Gospel John (c. 90 AD) explicitly states in numerous places (e.g. John 1:1; 10:30; 20:28) and as the earliest Christians just over a decade after his death believed (see, e.g. a likely hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 that extols Jesus as Kurios [Greek for YHWH]), Israel’s god Yahweh embodied? As annoying as it might be to some, I shall not presently be answering this question (though posing it is important to remember in the back of one’s mind), deferring it till later, not least because I don’t want to be accused of cooking the evidence in advance in favour of my Christian bias. Thus, I shall begin, as I think all honest research should, with situating Jesus as a human being in a Second Temple Jewish context in the first century AD; for Jesus might have been be more than human, but he most definitely was not less than human.

I have briefly alluded to the fact that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet announcing the “kingdom of God” in terms of subverting Roman imperial ideology, as well as mentioned, and quoted from, the ancient biographies of Jesus written by (seemingly anonymous) early Christians, from which we gain four different, though broadly similar, portraits of the significance of this rabbi-prophet. But what are we to make of the genre of these biographies (later in the 2nd century called Gospels)? That Jesus is depicted in these “Gospels” as a 1st century Jew in an identifiable period of Second Temple Judaism, acting in ways that are often dissimilar to the way the post-Easter early church spoke of him and early Judaism (respectively), goes some way, for most NT scholars, in demonstrating that we probably do have a substantial amount of primitive tradition that goes to Jesus himself (rather than the early church’s concoctions). EP Sanders offers the following list of statements about Jesus that are almost beyond dispute:

“Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great; he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; he was baptized by John the Baptist; he called disciples; he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); he preached ‘the kingdom of God’; about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; he created a disturbance in the Temple area; he had a final meal with the disciples; he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate; his disciples at first fled; they saw him (in what sense is not certain) after his death; as a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the kingdom; they formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.”

In later posts, I will make the case for the authenticity of much more ‘Jesus traditions’ (specific stories or sayings), but for introductory purposes of briefly probing at the nature of the Christian Bible here I will note the main source which substantially – indeed inextricably – shaped the presentation of these historical traditions, which is also, according to scholars, a potential source of newly created material: the Jewish scriptures (which became the Christian ‘Old Testament’ after Christians decided that some of their literature was also scripture, which they called the ‘New Testament’). Christians thought that Hebrew prophets had spoken about Jesus, and that he fulfilled prophetic expectations. They could therefore read the prophets and find things that Jesus must have done. Although we must thus be open to the possibility that some material was created (the infancy narratives are probably the most likely candidates, if any), most scholars think it nevertheless likely that Jesus really was a prophet in the style of, say, Jeremiah. Notwithstanding the many alterations or additions, by which an authorized tradent sought to explain or adapt the teaching when the post-Easter situation seemed to require it, the plausibility of many of Jesus’ words and actions can be readily demonstrated, as can be shown with one example now to illustrate.

A common assumption, particularly amongst Christians who try to divorce Jesus from his ancient Jewish context in service of their own contemporary ideologies, is that Jesus abrogated all laws having to do with food, Sabbath and purity. But this is probably historically inaccurate, as is suggested by, e.g., Mark 1:44, which testifies that Jesus respected the law in not being rebellious against the Jerusalem priesthood. The saying in Mark 7:15-19 about what defiles a person is often cited as proof that Jesus abolished the food laws. Most scholars argue, persuasively in my judgement, that the comment that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7:19) is Mark’s editorial comment on his received tradition. It is more likely instead that Jesus intended a hyperbolic contrast (like elsewhere in his teaching; see, e.g. Matt 5:29-30): what counts most is not what goes into a person but what comes out. Thus, Mark’s comment reflects his purpose for writing—specifically, to make sure later Gentile followers of Jesus understand they didn’t need to keep those laws.[1]

One other feature that makes it plausible that Jesus believed himself to be a prophet is that he emphasised the inverted priorities of the Pharisees and the scribes in the manner of the earlier teachings of Israel’s prophets (Hos 6:6; cf. Matt 9:3; 12:7): he said, for instance, that the Pharisees tithe, as they should according to the law, but neglect “the weightier matters of the law”: justice, mercy, faithfulness and love of God (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42; cf. Hos 12:6; Amos 5:15; Mic 6:8).

I will have much more to say later about how, although Old Testament theology must be approached independently in its own context(s) before imposing a “Christian reading” of it, New Testament theology cannot properly be done in isolation from Old Testament theology (as shown in these brief examples); thus I will provide a summary for now, which will provide a tentative framework for later posts, of what I consider the main characteristics of the Bible to be in descriptive (rather than prescriptive) terms.

What we Christians call homogeneously the one, canonical “Bible” (in the singular) can be described as: an ancient and diverse collection of selected historical traditions for a theological didactic purpose, which is ultimately to reveal God’s intention to dwell among his people and to be in relationship with them.

  • Ancient – which might seem like a point that doesn’t need to be made, but it does. It’s very easy to forget – or maybe push aside – how old this book (really, collection of books, as will be shown below) really is. The vast distance/barrier in chronology, language, geography and culture – which can be characterized more broadly as the ancient cognitive environment – reminds us that the biblical texts were not written to us, even if we appropriate them by reading them as if they are written for us. (Thus, when Paul believes that Deuteronomy 25:4 was “written for our sake” in his letter to the Corinthians [1 Cor 9:10], or, more broadly, remarks in his letter to the Romans that whatever was written in the past was written “for our instruction” [Romans 15:4], we mustn’t necessarily, as he did, conflate the distinction between original context and application in the present (which didn’t seem to exist in antiquity, as will later be shown in the Qumran community who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls).
  • Diverse collection – it’s just as easy to flatten out the divergent voices within what we homogeneously call the Bible. The Greek underlying the English word Bible, biblia (which is plural), reflects the fact that its various writers lived at different times, in different places, and under different circumstances – and as a result talked about God and the life of faith differently. Indeed, very often writers across time seem to have spoken in monologues, as well as disagreeing dialogues, which produced, in the forming of a canon, as often as much, if not more, cacophony as euphony! Contrast Proverbs and Deuteronomy (obey Torah; if not YHWH will punish you for your sins/you will spiritually die) with Job and Ecclesiastes (there seems to be no order or justice, rhyme or reason, in this world!). Or compare the prophet Nahum’s rejoicing at the destruction of the dreaded Assyrians and their capital Nineveh in 612 BCE, with the prophet Jonah, the author probably writing generations later after the return from exile, who speaks of God’s desire that the Ninevites repent and be saved. Or the large amount of texts that anthropomorphise God as hardly omniscient or omnipresent compared to the few, later in Jewish tradition, that do. Or the evolution, mirroring the shift from a tribalistic society to a centralized monarchy, from a polytheistic understanding of Yahweh as the son of El Elyon (the Most High god over the lesser gods) [see the Dead Sea Scrolls likely original wording of Deuteronomy 32:8 which the Greek Septuagint and later Hebrew Masoretic text excised/altered; the NRSV honestly shows this as opposed to the ideologically distorted NIV and, to a lesser extent, ESV which covers it up] to a monotheistic understanding of Yahweh as the only true and real God [e.g. Isaiah 45:5; 47:8 etc.]. I will give many more examples of the divergent theological emphases of biblical books in later posts.
  • Selection of historical traditions – every historical narrative involves selection, including modern ones, thus revealing their “bias”; the Bible’s is
  • For a teaching purpose that could be called, albeit admittedly cumbersomely, theo-anthropocentric – focusing on different humans “wrestling” with their experiences with/of God (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Israel in Hebrew denotes “wrestling with God”). This is especially important in avoiding unfruitful debates that draw sharp, false dichotomies such as ‘is this history or myth?’ In his recent Old Testament Theology for Christians, Old Testament scholar John Walton astutely speaks on this (I say astutely because many conservative Christian scholars like him are unfortunately more focused on apologetics than operating within the more public (but not unbiased of course!) domain of critical scholarship): since historical reconstruction of events employing the historical-critical method is difficult and limited, the theological point in a text, Walton says, is often more important than its historical reconstruction and the former is valid even if the latter is uncertain. In other words – and here’s where I think Walton hits the nail on the head for pragmatic common sense – the interpretation of the event is more important than the fact of the event (though an event still serves as the referent).[2] Thus, lastly, the words in the Bible can still in some sense be regarded as
  • Revelatory, revealing as much about ourselves – our limitations, prejudices, hopes, fears and sins – as about God’s intention to “be with us”, culminating in Christ who is called, typologically, Immanuel (Matt 1:23), which means “God with us.”

Following biblical scholar Peter Enns, in the following posts I will make much of the importance of the last point – of the incarnation. For me the incarnation – the Word becoming flesh and tabernacling among us (John 1:14) – is the overarching, most significant theme for Christian theology; every other theme, including the over-stressed theme of “salvation history” and the under-stressed (sub-)theme of covenant, flows from it. An incarnational theology, which traces the trajectory of this important theme that runs right through the Bible of God’s intention to dwell among and be in relationship with his people until its climax in Immanuel, seems to me to be the best model for interpreting Scripture too: as Jesus was fully divine and fully human, the scriptures are also a thoroughly human and (yet somehow also) divine product. The word of God – better, the words from ancient Israelites about their God – is a means to the end of the Word of God (Jesus) to which the former bears witness to the latter. Thus, as shocking as it might sound to many Christians, the Bible is not actually the centre of the Christian faith. If we are listening and observing the way it speaks and acts, the word of God decenters itself so that it points to the central focus of the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.

Thus I will follow Enns in speaking of a Christotelic, as opposed to Christocentric (seeing Christ in every OT passage), hermeneutic. I will quote Enns at length here because he summarises the points, which I will elaborate upon later, well: “Telos is a Greek word meaning “end” or “goal.” The Old Testament does not so much flow easily into the New Testament, nor do the Old Testament writers “predict” Jesus of Nazareth in any conventional sense of the word “predict.” Rather, after the resurrection, New Testament writers read their scripture (the Christian Old Testament) in light of—in taking into account—the surprise ending of a crucified and risen Messiah. The faith of the New Testament writers is that Christ is deeply connected to Israel’s story while at the same time grappling with this surprise, counterintuitive development of the gospel. This led the NT writers (especially Paul and the Gospel writers) to cite the OT well over 300 times (connecting the gospel to Israel’s story) and in doing so significantly re-read, i.e., transpose, Israel’s story to account for the surprise ending. This tendency toward “creative” (i.e., midrashic) readings of scripture in Judaism in general at the time is the proper hermeneutical backdrop for understanding this “Christotelic” hermeneutic. This is why—as many Bible readers know—NT writers, when quoting the OT, typically “take it out of context,” meaning the context of the original utterance. The gospel requires creative re-framing of Israel’s story.”[3]

One final, though crucial, brief note with regard to the methodology I will employ, in general, in wading through the biblical texts in later posts. Following NT Wright’s “critical realism”, I will employ a principle of critical trust (PCT) in my historical work, a dialectic of trust and critical assessment which, I think, is proper and necessary in order to avoid the extremes of unmitigated skepticism and uncritical trust. If I was to pick agnosticism over uncritical trust on some passage, however, I would easily opt the former – especially in the unfortunate anti-intellectual atmosphere that resides in many Christian circles, uncritical trust or blind faith is much more dangerous in my opinion than saying ‘I don’t know’, and so it is to be absolutely avoided, because it is not conducive to intellectual or spiritual growth.

[1] Furthermore, in the book of Acts (reflecting a situation about ten years or so after Jesus’ resurrection), early followers of Jesus deal with the topic of food laws for what seems like the first time rather than simply referring back to something Jesus explicitly taught. Paul also, in his later letter (late 50s) to the Romans, for instance, makes much about dietary laws (Rom 14:20), never hinting that he is following Jesus’s lead.

[2] John Walton, Old Testament Theology for Christians, 6-7.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s