On the Origins of Scripture

One way to categorize how Christians in antiquity, especially the 1st-3rd centuries CE, understood the idea of a Bible is through three categories: normative, authoritative, and Scriptural. Normative means the tradition is standard and accepted amongst many. Authoritative means the tradition is standard and carries the an authoritative status. Authoritative can either be in a written text, or not. Scriptural means the understanding of a body of literature compiled into one, coherent piece. Scriptural does include the idea of authoritative tradition; however, the movement from authoritative to Scriptural results in the importance of the written material.

One of Origen’s letters, Exhortation to Martyrdom, offers some insight into this question. I won’t cite the text for the sake of time. This is mainly because I want to work out this idea in my own head.

Throughout the letter, he consistently speaks about what Jesus spoke, what Paul spoke, and even what the book of Revelation spoke. Obviously, the “speaking” done by Paul, Jesus, and Revelation occurs through the medium of a text. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible is a written text. When referencing the Hebrew Bible, Origen references it as a written, material thing. Although he sometimes talks about what Yahweh said to Moses, it is a reference to a story told through a written, material tradition.

In other words, references to what we call the New Testament tend to be understood stood as an authoritative tradition. Even though they have material texts, the texts are simply a medium for a spoken, authoritative tradition. Distinct from these, references to the Hebrew Bible tend to be understood as written text. These texts were written in the past and were now relevant for Origen. As far as I am aware, they are not reference as “spoken” in this letter (i.e. “Thus, Moses speaks”).

In short, based on my short reading of Origen, the New Testament traditions are part of an authoritative tradition, which found its way to Origen through text. The Hebrew Bible is part of Scriptural in the sense that it is a written, material thing. This written, material thing is the object from which Origen draws meaning from the written word for his day. In reference to New Testament literature, Origen draws from the spoken word for his day, which just happens to be spoken through a medium of literature.

From Death to Life

Of the multiple papers presented at the Society of Biblical Literature Conference, one of the most outstanding to me was by a lady, whose name I cannot recall, that drew out the concept of resurrection within Job. Upon referencing Job 19:26, a passage commonly used within the 1st four centuries as a prophetic text for Jesus’ resurrection, she explored how it was the root of the concept of resurrection which developed rapidly within the 2nd Temple Period. One nuance of Job, which I do wish she’d spent more time explicating, was that the concept of moving from death to life within the book takes place within life. Why does this matter?

In essence, reading the concept of resurrection within one’s life permits for a more practical hope to be held. Rather than simply pushing hope to be the resurrection after one has died, the hope for resurrection from death is permitted to take place in this life, not another. Essentially, it allows people to participate more practically in the Job narrative and join Job in his journey to understanding the nuances of life: how does one move from a living death to a living life?

Of course, while these concepts are utilized within the New Testament beyond this life, that does not nullify an understanding of resurrection within this life. Expansion of how we define resurrection, especially for Christians, beyond a postmortem occurrence may very well open up doors to encourage, build, and change the world in even greater ways. It offers hope to people who live now rather than forcing them to take upon themselves the pessimistic weight of Ecclesiastes as their life.

And, most importantly, an expanded understanding of resurrection, from death to life, permits more successful Jewish-Christian dialogue, which may well lead to a unity of the two traditions to move together towards the healing of the world.

The Christian “Oral Torah”

Recently, Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein visited Northwest University. I had the honor of speaking with him for an hour or so about a variety of topics including, but not limited to, Oral Torah, Jewish-Christian dialogue, and creation theology. Amongst the many things which caught my attention, there was one thought he expressed which I thoroughly appreciated. In essence, he said that Jews are unique in that they’ve thought through their theology and recognize the source of their traditions. For Jews, that is the Oral Torah, which is the framework of traditions by which they interpret the Written Torah.

Attending a protestant Christian University, I have often witnessed people who operate from a stance of sola scriptura. Many people I know often understand their traditions as something which originated in the Pentecostal movement of the early 1900’s or in the reformations of the 16th century. Unfortunately, though, people aren’t always able to, or willing to, recognize that they to, just as Jews, have a sort of “Oral Torah”. By “Oral Torah”, I really mean the foundations and environment in which the Church traditions were formulated, which vary significantly and are not completely linear. Foundations of Christian tradition are present in theologians like Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and, really, any other theologian from the past 1900 years who has dialogued with the Church and made any impact, positive or negative. This lack of recognition is often realized in people not being aware of why they think or how they think. In their minds, their framework is simply the Holy Spirit and some biblical interpretation of the 1st century context of the New Testament, or the 4th century BCE context of the Hebrew Bible.

In reality, if Christians truly do hope to dialogue with others and better understand their own beliefs within a contemporary society, it is absolutely necessary to recognize the “Oral Torah” of Christianity, those elements which shaped Christianity into what it is today.

The Truth About Jewish-Christian Dialogue

Growing up, my church never addressed the issue of Judaism’s history and how it regarded Christianity. As I began to explore how Judaism and Christianity were related, much of what I came across often claimed that Judaism had no connection to Christianity after the 1st century. That is false. In chapter 4 of “Christianity In Jewish Terms”, David Ellenson explores the Jewish view of the Christian God. While it is clear that many of the earliest Rabbinic writings were polemic against Christianity, as Judaism and Christianity developed parallel to each other over 1200 years, the 12th century records an moment of relationship between Christianity and Judaism. 12th century Rabbi Isaac spoke of Christianity as follows:

“Although [Christians] mention the name of Heaven, meaning thereby Jesus of Nazareth, they do not at all events mention a strange deity, and moreover, they mean thereby the Maker of Heaven and Earth too; and despite the fact that they associate the name of Heaven with an alien deity, we do not find that it is forbidden to cause Gentiles to make such an association…” (Christianity In Jewish Terms, 73).

There were strands of 12th century Judaism that accepted Christianity as being, in some sense, orthodox. Commenting on Rabbi Manechem’s stance on Christianity (1300’s), historian Jacob Katz states that Christians “recognize the Godhead” and “believe in God’s existence, His unity, and power, although they misconceive some points according to our belief” (Christianity In Jewish Terms, 74). Katz continues by pointing out that Rabbi Menachem believed Christians should not be included in the category of idolatrous.

Why does this matter? Even if Christianity and Judaism are unable to completely reconcile beliefs and the differences in beliefs, it is clear that they are not distinct to point of complete separation. Acknowledgement of this closeness is essential because, although Rabbinic Judaism is quite different from 1st century Judaism, Judaism does help to illuminate Jesus’ works in the Gospels and the words of the epistles. This reconciliation towards peace between Christians and Jews also allows both groups to complete what they are called to do: work for the healing of the world.

“Simply Jesus” by NT Wright

In Simply Jesus, renowned New Testament scholar NT Wright speaks to Christians from all walks of life to answer a simple question: Who is Jesus? An essential question to any human being, Wright addresses this issue through exploring the context of Jesus which exposes the more subtle implications of Jesus’ self and message that are absent in many churches. Rather than simply take the side of conservative evangelicals or skeptics, regarding the answer to who Jesus was, he finds a fair balance by criticizing both sides of the spectrum and allowing each side to inform the other practically about the topic. In approaching Jesus’ character, rather than simply performing dry exegetical work, he approaches the issue of worldviews to begin his exploration of answering the question of who Jesus is. After all, “if we are to do real history, we have to allow people in other times and other places to be radically different from us” (22-23).

The greatest accomplishment, considering his audience is the average church go-er, is his language and style. Simply Jesus is written like a conversation with an academic thrust. So, rather than simply observing a text book, the reader is able to speak with NT Wright about the topic. He accomplishes this task through a variety of tools like rhetorical questions, personal stories, and easy to understand language. Furthermore, he explains Jesus’ context clearly in divided categories, simplifying the historical records in order that it may be easier for his readers to understand. At last, Wright makes his book more than answering the question of who Jesus is. Simply Jesus is a call to believers to take responsibly their roles as disciples of Jesus, the body of Christ operating on this earth, which is Jesus’ Lordship and rule.

The greatest issue with Simply Jesus was in his discussion regarding the Scriptures that formed the backdrop for Jesus’ ministry. Although he rightly includes Isaiah 40-66, Daniel, and Zechariah, he fails to fully discuss Jeremiah 31:31-34, the prophetic text about a New Covenant. If he is to fully discuss the ministry of Jesus, which results in the “New Covenant”, it is absolutely necessary to discuss how Jesus uses the concept of New Covenant, originally presented in Jeremiah, in a 1st century Jewish and Roman context. While there is not too much lost from this information’s absence, there would be much gained by addressing this backdrop of Jesus.

In conclusion, Simply Jesus is a book that is essential for any person seeking to understand the Gospels. While it should not be read in place of the Gospels, it should be read as a guidebook to understanding Jesus’ context. Because it is more than a textbook, the reader can have a spiritual experience as Wright paints the context of Jesus that made his message so radical. Believer should recognize his context and now recognize that we are called to the same thing. Believers are called to be more than privatized religion. Just as Jesus was political, in some sense, Christians should be political when they state that Jesus is Lord and King over all of history. This point, often forgotten, is an essential to understand who Jesus is and how we follow him. Thus, any Christian serious about knowing God, about knowing Jesus, should set aside a few days to allow God to speak to them through Simply Jesus.

Click here to purchase Simply Jesus by NT Wright

 

“The Shadow of the Galilean” by Gerd Theissen

In The Shadow of the Galilean, Gerd Theissen tells a fictional story through a historical lens of 1st century culture in Palestine. The book is focused on examining how Jesus’ message was understood in his greater context. Similar to The Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce W. Longenecker, Theissen avoids the typical textbook feeling of history by presenting all of the historical facts and understanding through the narration of a character named Andreas. Within the book, Andreas addresses 1st century groups like the Essenes, Zealots, and Pharisees. Additionally, he clearly shows how 1st century politics could have easily taken Jesus’ message to be subversive in aim of stopping Roman rule. Yet, Theissen is also able to show Andreas’ character interacting with people to bring out the more theologically focused possibilities of viewing Jesus message. In other words, he shows the sociological aspects of the religious and political sentiments and how the two elements intertwine.

Thessen’s creation is innovative and effective in communicating Jesus’ context in light of 1st century Judaism and politics. The narrative style allows the reader to partake in a story for absorbing information rather than listing off theological and historical facts. In light of one of my most recent posts, The Essential Story, I truly do appreciate his effort to write in such a fashion. The simplicity of the read and clear explanations allow for the reader to remain in the story and not become lost in the complicated nature of history. The history is shown as something that was a reality for people who knew of Jesus and that Jesus’ actions affected the entire region.

While his presentation was creative and effective, it did lack skill in the conversational realism. Because it is a historical-fiction narrative, there should be an aspect of realism in conversation. Unfortunately, the dialogue, a core to Theissen’s work, is choppy and unrealistic. At moments, it feels as though he copied facts from a textbook into a narrative dialogue and considered it good. While it makes sense to do that, it does make the dialogue uninteresting in regard to reflecting how human beings speak.

In conclusion, The Shadow of the Galilean is a good choice for a person who dislikes reading any sort of non-fiction historical book. However, there are better options for a person looking to understand the 1st century context of Jesus. That is not to say that it is terrible. On the contrary, it is a fantastically written and does well in presenting the historical context. The only issue is the unrealistic dialogue that never fully allows the reader to enter into and partake of the 1st century world that Theissen illustrates through words. Aside from that, Theissen’s work, The Shadow of the Galilean, is an excellent read that should be taken seriously by any person seeking to understand Jesus’ 1st century context, especially for a person who has not done much studying in that time period.

Click here to purchase The Shadow of the Galilean by Gerd Theissen

The Essential Story

Recently, I started a group at my school called “One Read”. The goal of the group is quite different from others. Many people will put together bible study groups aimed at studying Bible passages. “One Read”, rather than looking to pull things out of individual pericopes, reads the entire text in one sitting. Today we read through the book of Mark in an hour and twenty minutes. While it did take much time, it was more beneficial than I expected. In it, there were two major benefits that the Church, often unable to focus on one thing for more than five minutes, misses out on: humbleness and understanding.

In hearing the Gospel of Mark read for an hour and twenty minutes, there was a certain amount of patience and humbleness required in order to let it speak the way it was meant to. Mark was originally written to be read out loud, not studied with individual life verses. That is not to say pericope focused studies are bad. Rather, in order to fully understand a pericope, it is necessary to read the text in its fullness. Too often people have little or no willingness to hear the fullness of the story. And that is the problem. Mark is written as a story with the expectation that the hearer will partake in the emotion, feeling, and flow of it. Human beings are creatures that live and thrive in the world and cultures through stories that express humanity. That is just what the Gospel of Mark works with. It is a story that a person should submit themselves to in order to feel the full intention and aim of the text, a challenge for many. To do otherwise is to read it in a “non-human” way of thinking.

The second major lesson was that of understanding. Scholars often write long and complicated papers expressing some idea in the Bible. The average person considers them smart because the scholar saw something nobody else did. What if every person actually has the potential to see what the scholar can see? When a person invests their heart and soul into feeling a story, into experiencing the story with the characters, they open themselves up to feeling the emotions and thoughts of the character. In that, they realize the motifs and themes within the story that try to shed light on and define humanity, the same things scholars often write about. Once the hearer of the story is humbled to the text, they can understand the story in ways that they never believed possible. A willingness to humble the self allows an understanding of what the author is actually trying to express, thus allowing people to consider whether or not the message is something the hearer is willing to take up and live by.

So what? The Gospel can be understood as the essential story, a story that gives definition to humanity and purpose. To read it merely as an academic piece of work is to dishonor the original goal of it, to ignore the purpose of it. It is a story meant to challenge the reader. And we should read it as one. It is essential to always remember that the Gospels are written as stories, essential stories to human character and life.