Home > Uncategorized > Whose Scriptures Are They?

Whose Scriptures Are They?

Reading this article – “Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church” (Oxford Study Bible, pages 129-140) – I’m struck by how hard these particular early Christians were working to justify the cognitive dissonance engendered by the fact that they had appropriated the heritage of the Jews without actually converting, submitting, to Judaism. The points that get me are these:

“Only a handful of early Christian scholars had sufficient proficiency in Hebrew or Aramaic to consult the Old Testament in its language of composition” (ibid., page 130), and more importantly, “those… who did… found themselves under attack for their ‘Jewish’ predilections.”

I find the arrogance in this purposeful ignorance overwhelming. There is no sense here of a child (Christianity) loving and learning from its parent (Judaism). Instead, like the gods slaughtering the Titans, there is only the hostile attempt to eradicate the source.

Which necessitates working double-time to iron out the kinks. Whose scriptures are they, anyway? That’s the next question. Christians said the Old Testament is theirs because it predicts Jesus; Jews said it’s not the Old Testament, it’s the Bible, and it’s theirs because they wrote it and it’s about them anyway.

This, to me, is the biggest Christian infringement. They wanted the Jewish scripture, but they wanted it not to be Jewish. They wanted it to belong to them without them having to belong to it, convert, practice what it said, put to action the things it commanded. They wanted it to mean what they wanted it to mean, regardless of what difficulties arose in the effort to argue that. The difficulties were everywhere.

Some said the Old Testament God wasn’t the father of Jesus, but a lower deity; it strikes me that this resonates with the God-history some scholars support, that the oldest Hebrew God was taken from the surrounding peoples – Babylon, perhaps. In any case, that God didn’t jive well with early Christians for the same reason he’s not popular among some moderns today: he’s violent; he acts on emotions like jealousy and, some would say, vanity; his justice goes far beyond the crime and the criminal; he’s harsh.

I think it’s interesting that the interpretation I’m most comfortable with comes from the Gnostic Ptolemy: “the Mosaic law… issued neither from the ‘perfect God’ nor from the devil…. Parts of the Old Testament are divinely inspired and others are human creations that carry varying degrees of authority” (ibid., page 132). Ptolemy also made a distinction between teachings slated for ordinary Christians and those suitable for enlightened ones; I’m not much pleased by the sense of hierarchy here, but I do resonate with the concept of ordinary and enlightened laws, ways of being.

But the resonance ends there. Enter typology. In my classes, I was taught that typology was true. It simply existed. The scapegoat was a tangible prophecy of Jesus. Moses overseeing the battle with his arms outstretched directly prefigured the cross. The myriad of images in the Hebrew Bible which were later called “types” of Christ were not just figuratively so; the meaning was concrete, immutable; this was not interpretation but fact. Yet as I read about the origins of typology I’m soured by the realization that, whatever the lasting value of this hermeneutic may be, however rich and true these ideas are, typology entered the world as one more double-time attempt to redefine something that belonged to someone else. And the attempt was ugly. Justin Martyr played a classic bully card, defending it, when he told the Jews they had been given their ceremonial laws to celebrate physically, not typologically, because of their sinfulness. In other words, because I’m special I can take your book and decide what it says without actually having to follow the rules it comes with, but you have to follow the rules, while accepting that your book no longer belongs to you, because you’re a lesser human being. It’s almost comical when you consider that one of the prevailing themes of the Hebrew Bible is that the Jewish nation is the chosen people, but no, the Christians said, you’re not anymore because now we are. Can you be more blatant? Does a sillier contradiction exist? To take the whole point of something and throw it out the window while convincing yourself you’re actually agreeing with it. Crazy.

And the thing is, this seems to be a pattern. They wanted the book; they just didn’t want what it said. So they delved into allegory to provide another framework of meaning, allowing them to gloss over the harder stories, or intellectualize the beauty of myth. Even in Origen’s day, so long ago, the climate was too analytical to allow the words, “God walked in the garden in the cool of the day,” to be simply true. So it was subjected to the binary: it can’t be literal, so it must be allegorical. And no one was comfortable with the Song of Solomon being a lovers’ poem. Maybe the Jews were into all that fleshly stuff, but what it really means – so says the one who didn’t actually write it – is that God loves the church. Whether too fleshly, or too petty, or too material, the stories weren’t suitable when allowed to speak for themselves. So the early Christians spoke for them, developed an elaborate code, jumped through intricate hoops to wrestle these scriptures into submission.

Why did they not give themselves to them?

No one says they had to believe any of it, but given that they did, that they liked the idea anyway, why did they refuse to let these scriptures in? To belong to something doesn’t mean you can’t wrestle with it or even reinterpret it. The Jews had been doing that forever already, through midrash. Instead it means you engage it, you live in it like fish in a brook, you come from it and go back to it. But it seems the early Christians didn’t want to belong to the Jews’ book. They wanted it to belong to them. So instead of engaging, debating, wrestling, they manipulated, called people names and commandeered. I don’t think that’s the revolution Jesus had in mind.

And I don’t believe that all this embarrassing, school-yard strategy means that Christianity is a failed project. I do think it calls into question the first courses of its foundation, but Christianity, remember, is not about Christians. It’s about Christ. If you believe it at all, that is.

I’m not sure if I believe it or not, but I am sure I can’t turn my back on it; I want to believe it. But if I do, I’m not going to do so from this top-down, arrogant frame of mind. I’m not going to pretend that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t belong to the Jews. If my choice is to follow Jesus without converting to his religion, Judaism, I will bear that in mind. I will not tell myself I own any share in some other person’s heritage. Whatever is mine will be so because I belong to it; if it belongs to me at all it will because I belonged first to it, because I loved it, found resonance in it and set my steps according to what I found. I am a visitor in these pages, at best a dual citizen, but I will not insult the locals by claiming I am a native.

And I will not work double-time to argue that the stories are anything other than they are. I will do them the honor of listening to what they actually say, true or not, uncomfortable or not, acceptable or not. I will listen, because you listen to the ones you love.

  1. Leonardo Z
    July 12, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    If Jesus indeed came to ‘fulfill’ and not ‘abolish the law’, and if he is the person he claims to be, then there should be no dissonance between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity then is the fulfillment of Judaism. It all hangs on the question Christ asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And I hold to Peter’s answer, which is the faith of the Church.

    Some books that come to mind on this topic are: ‘Salvation is from the Jews’ by Roy Schoeman and ‘A Father Who Keeps His Promises’ by Scott Hahn.

    • Elisabeth M
      July 17, 2011 at 11:58 am

      I’ve been thinking about your comment since you wrote it. A few thoughts:

      If Christ is the fulfillment of the law, you’re right; there’s no dissonance between Judaism and Christianity – theologically. Culturally though, there was (and is still) a lot of dissonance. I’m not suggesting that the cultural side of things is more important than the theological, but it is important.

      Even theologically, dissonance exists: there are honest theological differences between these two religions. From a Christian perspective, Christianity is the telos (the fulfillment and end) of the law, but the Jews (whose views on Judaism are relevant) do not agree. So, even theologically, the question isn’t, “Does dissonance exist?” Rather it’s, “How do you engage the dissonance in a respectful way?”

      The way these early Christians engaged it – by taking control of the Hebrew Bible without any regard for the Hebrews who were still present, looking down on the Jews of their day, denigrating their ideas and in so doing, disrespecting a long and rich tradition – paved the way for centuries of anti-semitic oppression.

      My point isn’t that Christianity isn’t true, or that Christ represented himself falsely. My point is that the first Christians didn’t have to act this way. Just as the Protestants didn’t need to demonize the long and rich tradition of Catholicism from which they came, I believe Christians could have forged their own tradition with more humility.

      All of this is to say, I want to learn from their mistake. I think “humility” and “respect” are the words that sum it up for me.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google+ photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: