Peter Enns blogged recently about the task of Biblical Scholars, which he identifies as trying to find the best narrative which explains all of the evidence (in this case the narratives of the Bible), and I warmed to that – after all, this is what I do as a scientist (originally a Physics degree, now doing some occasional part time research in Chemistry) and is part of what I did as a lawyer when doing court work, particularly in criminal defence. He particularly likened his work to putting together a jigsaw, where perhaps 200 or so pieces are there out of a 1000 piece jigsaw, with some pieces which do not obviously seem to go together.
The thought which immediately sprang to mind was “But what if there are pieces from more than one jigsaw there?” That is something which has in fact happened to me a number of times, usually when there are just a few pieces which have strayed from another puzzle into this one, but occasionally when two or more puzzles have become completely mixed.
What, say, if the pieces were of a three-dimensional jigsaw, but we were interpreting them as only pieces of a two dimensional puzzle? What if they were indeed two dimensional representations of the same thing, but from a number of completely different directions?
Again, what if they were an attempt to combine several images into one, which would not make much sense as a two dimensional graphic unless you realised what was being attempted, as in Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude descending a staircase”, which looks to combine several viewpoints in space and in time.
Has this, I wondered, happened with the Bible? Of course, the standard conservative hermaneutic demands that the whole text, Old and New testaments, is all divinely inspired and is telling a single consistent story. Though most will say that they don’t hold to a theory of divine dictation, that is effectively what they end up with. This looks to me very much like deciding from the beginning that there is only one picture here. John Wesley, for instance, said that we must not “fragmentise” our study of scripture. “When a verse seems contrary to the overarching biblical message, we must look at the verse in question macrocosmically rather than microcosmically”. Was he right?
Slightly less conservative scholars will readily concede that the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are composed of a mosaic of texts composed at different times by different people with different agendas and which therefore reveal significantly different viewpoints. The documentary hypothesis, for instance, sees four major strains of thinking, and indeed several different conceptions of God. However, most scholars take the view that, underlying this, there is actually only one God at work throughout this collection of texts. Where there are different concepts of God (the Jahvist and Elohist traditions, for instance) they are just different views of one YHVH/Elohim deity.
There are, of course, a lot of themes in the Hebrew Scriptures. The dominant one is probably the redemption of Israel from slavery and return to the promised land, but there is also a strong narrative of prophetic challenge to kingly authority, God -v- mundane rulers, an increasing insistence on monotheism to the exclusion of “other gods” (OK, conservatives will try to tell me that the scriptures are monotheistic from the start, but that is not borne out by the text), and there’s a narrative of sin (usually collective sin) and how to make ones self right with God again. There are others, but these are probably the principal ones.
On to the New Testament, and the vast majority of scholars (and particularly those who are primarily theologians rather than biblical historians) are looking for a single narrative of the purpose of Jesus; many if not most will then refer this back to the Hebrew Scriptures and principally use them as a foundation for their NT work, seeing the themes of the NT prefigured in them. Most will acknowledge that the Fourth Gospel has a viewpoint radically different from the three synoptic gospels and that Paul and the author of James have significantly different stresses, but there is still a strong theological urge to find the same message in each strand, an underlying theory of what it was (or is) that Jesus did for us.
But what if there is more than one thing which Jesus did, more than one way in which he was significant which is of importance, and those things are not obviously connected except in the person of Jesus?
Some while ago I wrote a post titled “God: WTF?”, in which I suggested that the only appropriate response to peak mystical experience was something like “WTF?”; it is just too overwhelming and multi-faceted to make it susceptible to description (and the best attempts are wildly poetic rather than coldly analytic). The more I read of the New Testament writers, the more I think that they were struggling with the question “Jesus: WTF?”. At the most basic level, they knew he had lived, taught, healed, gathered a following, died and had then become alive again to some of his followers in some sense, and they knew that he was important. That is to say “IMPORTANT!”. Some of them experienced him as being present to them in, so far as I can understand it, much the same way as that in which I think of God as being present to me in peak mystical events – Paul and John, at least, are identified by F.C. Happold as “Christ-mystics”, and I agree; quite some number started to include him as a figure of worship.
It was not, however, sufficient to say “come and follow Jesus; this is what he said we should do”; they had to make sense of what they experienced about him. Starting with Paul, all the NT writers wrote using the vocabulary of talking about God which they had available, which was mostly the Hebrew Scriptures – and they mined every area of those in which they thought they could find an analogy to Jesus or a new way of considering his importance.
He needed to be like Moses, so he was saving his followers from some form of slavery, variously the Devil, or Sin, or the Romans. He needed to be like Elijah, so he was prophetic and worked miracles (a very similar set of miracles). He had died voluntarily at the hands of the occupying power, faithful to the last, like the Maccabean martyrs, so his death was an atonement, and was a substitution (the Maccabean martyrs arguably saved many others from death by their actions, and in dying they could be thought to suffer the death or failure to remain faithful – which in Judaism is often regarded as much the same thing – which may otherwise have come upon many Israelites).
He needed to be kingly, as being the Messiah, so naturally acquired titles similar to those of Caesar (for instance, Son of God), and he needed to be more universal than even Caesar, so gentiles and Jews both had to be included. He also needed to be priestly, so the author of Hebrews reinterpreted him as ascending to make an ultimate sacrifice (of himself) in the imagined heavenly Temple. As a sacrifice, he needed to recall the passover, so he was the passover lamb, but he also needed to recall the Feast of Atonement, so he was the Yom Kippur goat – or, actually, he was both of the Yom Kippur goats, the one which was ritually sacrificed and the one which bears all the sins of the people and is driven out of the assembly.
Out of all these different perspectives, theologians starting with Paul have tried to construct a coherent single message. As one might have predicted of an attempt (inter alia) to make Jesus simultaneously into one lamb and two goats, sacrificed for two different reasons on two different occasions (and surviving in the case of one goat), the result either forces pieces of the picture into a scheme they don’t fit into, or ends up as initially confusing as Duchamp’s nude, or both.
And yet, and yet… look at the statement I highlighted in yellow above. I am clearly there putting forward a theory of Jesus, even though it’s a severely stripped down one (there are a lot of pieces I have left out…). We are, I think, inevitably going to do this, and the most I can ultimately ask is that we exercise a little humility and accept that there may be other ways of fitting the pieces together, other pictures which can be reached.
Back to the Hebrew Scriptures and the concept of God. The Hebrew Scriptures conceived of God in a lot of ways, and strict monotheism wasn’t the start point. There’s strong evidence that YHVH started off as a purely national god of the Israelites (consider all the references to “other gods”) and became a conflation of YHVH and Elohim, YHVH being a god of wrath and war, Elohim being much more of a creator and sustainer. The writers moved on to thinking of God as supreme among other gods (henotheism), and finally to God as the only deity – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one”.
They didn’t, however, conceive of God in the same way as the Greek philosophers, for whom God was much more like an abstract principle. Some of this way of thinking crept in to the NT writers, particularly John, whose first chapter (so far as I can see) lifts a huge amount of thinking from Philo of Alexandria’s attempt to synthesise Greek philosophy with the Hebrew Scriptures (look in particular at Philo’s conception of “Logos”, otherwise “Word”). For the Hebrews, God was very much a personal God (and a national one, as Israel were the “chosen people”), for the Greeks the ultimate God was far beyond personality (the philosophers had largely dispensed with the very personal pantheon of Greece a long time previously to Aristotle, to whom I link – note that this kind of thinking looks a lot like the later thinking of Christian theologians).
Are these different concepts actually just different views of the same [ ] (to avoid any label at all)? Well, this is not a dead issue, as witness the suggestions recently that the God of Islam is not the same God as the God of the Bible. Judaism, of course, moved steadily in the direction of categorising other gods as false, and eventually demonic. So, largely, did Christianity, save that in Western Christianity a very large number of saints seem to resemble remarkably local and tribal gods.
In this area, I have taken the view that yes, there is One God (my peak mystical experience does not admit of its source being other than all-encompassing) and that this is the foundation of all mystical experiences in multiple religious traditions, for which insight and argument I am indebted to F.C. Happold. I am therefore committed to there being a single underlying reality, and thus in some way, the different ways in which mystics of varying religious traditions have talked of God must in some way be different images of the same God, however difficult this is to understand.
I gave up the concept of syncretism (trying to meld together a set of different viewpoints) many years ago – the result tended to look too much like Duchamp’s painting, confusing and inadequate at best unless and until you got the trick of looking at it, and not really representing any single viewpoint adequately. I am, however, increasingly coming to the view that Christianity in and of itself is already trying to meld viewpoints which are not so much inconsistent as just looking at things from totally different standpoints (and that Judaism before it was also trying to do that, with slightly fewer viewpoints).
So, to theologians, I suggest that for any problem, no matter how complex, there is a simple, understandable solution.
And it’s wrong.