Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 2

August 1st, 2017
by Chris

In part 1, I looked at some examples of what one might call “secondary scripture”, including the apocrypha (or deuterocanonical, which is a translation of “secondary scripture”) and a set of completely extra-canonical works which probably were “scripture” for some churches at some time, but now are not.

However, the biggest source of being “afraid of sacred texts” I come across on a day to day basis is the Hebrew Scriptures (or “Old Testament”). I lose track of the numbers of people I encounter in church, notably in small groups, who have actually read a little beyond the carefully selected texts which tend to be preached on, and are troubled by (for instance) the end of Psalm 137 “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock.”  This tends to be avoided like the plague by preachers who are, however, content to use the beginning of the same psalm “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion”, conjuring up memories of Boney M. They didn’t get to the end either…

The early triumphalist history of Israel is littered with examples of apparently divinely approved violence, from injunctions to kill every last Amalekite (including livestock). Saul’s very minor reinterpretation of this is grounds for divine displeasure (and it is uncertain whether the fault is just in leaving Agag alive, but captured, or in keeping the livestock alive…). It was not just the Amalekites who needed to worry – Israelites themselves could be a target, and the Israelites were not exactly good neighbours to Canaan, Philistia, Moab or Edom. In fact, I could probably have stopped at “not exactly good neighbours”…

It is hardly surprising that my small group fellows agonise about whether the God presented in the Hebrew Scriptures is actually the same God as evidenced in the words of Jesus, and prefer to avoid most of the historical parts. Similarly, stoning children for cheeking their parents is one of a set of commandments which we now have extreme difficulty in accepting as “divine commandments”, perhaps even more so than avoiding bacon or lobster…

They are not, of course, by any means the first Christians to have this concern. In the second century, Marcion of Sinope had similar worries, and decided that the Hebrew Scriptures were “not needed on voyage” – and also reduced the New Testament to an abbreviated version of Luke-Acts and the Pauline letters in an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance. He was, of course, condemned as a heretic, one of the first clearly named heretics, but his ideas by no means died with the suppression of Marcionite tendencies, and Marcion’s identification of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as the Demiurge, a kind of “imposter God”, was to be a mainstay of those Gnostic interpretations of Christianity of which the Gnostic Gospels were accused (see part 1).

By far the most important reason I would advance for studying the Hebrew Scriptures is, however, not because to avoid them might be slightly heretical, but the fact that they formed much of the matrix of thought in which Jesus operated and in which the New Testament writers formulated their accounts. You cannot really understand the New Testament without understanding the Hebrew Scriptures, because the New Testament is either appropriating texts from there to approve or giving a counter-testimony against them (“You have heard it said… but I say…”).

And, in conscience, that is the key to the Hebrew Scriptures; they do not just give a single viewpoint, there is a constant ebb and flow of testimony and counter-testimony, which at the simplest can be thought of as a main narrative with prophets giving a counter-narrative on a regular basis, and some of the writings (notably Ecclesiastes and Job) subverting both.

This is brought out excellently in two recent books, firstly John Dominic Crossan’s “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian”, secondly Peter Enns “The Bible Tells Me So”. (They are by no means alone; divine violence is a hot topic in the Christian publishing world at the moment).

The church fathers’ wisdom in keeping four gospels against Marcion’s wish for there to be only one and avoid ambiguity was foreshadowed by the wisdom of the Jewish forerunners of the Rabbis in keeping completely contradictory accounts and regarding both at the same time as inspired scripture. Equally, there is testimony and countertestimony between the seven definitely Pauline letters and the probably not Pauline letters, and between the Pauline viewpoint and that of the Epistle of James.

Christians could, I think, learn much from Judaism in their approach to scripture. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that when venturing beyond the safety of the texts we’re used to hearing, we could do worse than to look at Jewish interpretations of their own scripture. Judaism does, after all, have a significant head start over Christianity in trying to interpret these scriptures!

The earlier of those were collected into the Talmud, which ranks as scripture (at least of a kind) for Judaism; it’s thought of as containing the “Oral Torah” (in balance with the five earliest books of the Bible, which are the Torah) and as being possibly as authoritative – and, if you’re a conservative or Orthodox Jew, as having originally been communicated to Moses on Sinai but not written down… Indeed, in the eyes of Jewish conservatives, if a young rabbinic scholar comes up with a new and interesting interpretation of Torah tomorrow, it will still have been communicated to Moses on Sinai… (This is the mindset which, as I mentioned in part 1 of this essay, decided that the rock followed Moses. It is maybe not easy for a Christian to understand, but it has a logic of its own).

Maybe reading the Talmud is a step too far, but something like the Jewish Annotated New Testament can be very valuable in Bible study in giving at least some of the Jewish tradition, as can a Jewish Study Bible for the Hebrew Scriptures.

At this point, I’ve gone beyond what is even regarded as “scripture” in either Judaism or Christianity with the study Bibles. In part 3, I intend to go even further…

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