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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Jesus Takes the Bible Out of Context

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Chapter 5 of “The Bible Tells Me So” discusses how Jesus read and interpreted the bible. Turns out it’s way different than what modern American evangelical Christians think of as the right way to read the bible. I have no idea how I never noticed this.

As an example: in Luke 20:27-40, the Sadducees are asking Jesus a tricky question about if a woman got remarried like 7 times, whose wife would she be at the resurrection (ie in heaven)? And Jesus was like, “yeah that’s not really how it works” [slight paraphrase] and told them their real problem was they don’t believe in resurrection, but it’s totally a real thing, because of what God said to Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” According to Jesus, this means “he is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

If you’re like “uh what?” then here’s what Jesus is saying: God uses the present tense when God says “I am the God of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob.” So, they are alive, you know, at the time when God is speaking to Moses, hundreds of years after Abraham/Isaac/Jacob lived. So, clearly, God makes dead people live again. Resurrection (or heaven, as some might interpret it) is totally a legit thing.

Wait, Jesus, you got all that out of the word “am”? I’m pretty sure God tells Moses “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” in order to identify Godself. God’s not making any kind of statement on the topic of resurrection at all. Jesus is reading way too much into this.

That’s what American evangelicals would say about this way of interpreting the bible. It’s wrong! You can’t just pick one word and build a whole idea around it, when nothing else from the passage supports it at all. (And I agree!)

But back then, in the Jewish culture that produced Jesus, that’s what they did. They came up with interpretations of the bible that “twisted Scripture” or “took it out of context,” as modern American Christians would say.

You can also see this style of interpretation when the New Testament writers talk about the prophecies that Jesus “fulfilled.” Have you ever looked up one of those prophecies in the Old Testament, and said “wait a minute... this doesn’t really seem like a prophecy at all”? Or worse, you find that when the New Testament quoted the supposed prophecy, some of the words were changed to make it fit better.

For example, when Judas tries to give back the money he got for betraying Jesus, and the chief priests end up using it to buy a field, Matthew says, "Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 'They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.'" Okay, let's flip back to Jeremiah... oh, uh, this is awkward, actually it's from Zechariah 11. Hmm, apparently, this one time, someone paid Zechariah 30 pieces of silver, and he ended up throwing them at the potter (whatever that means). Wait, how is this a prophecy? It's a thing that happened, and then later, in Matthew's opinion, a similar thing happened to Judas. Uh, so what?

Also, John tells us that when Jesus was on the cross, "so that Scripture would be fulfilled", he says "I am thirsty" and they offered him wine vinegar. What Scripture was fulfilled, exactly? Psalm 69:21, "They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst." But why would we think Psalm 69 is a prophecy about the messiah anyway? Only because it ended up being similar to what happened to Jesus. This is called confirmation bias, and it does not make for a good argument.

We have prophecies being misquoted or taken out of context or pulled from a passage that isn’t really a prophecy at all. This is a huge problem for claim that Old Testament prophecies prove that Jesus is the Christ. So many Christians walk around proclaiming “God told them EXACTLY what would happen, hundreds of years before!!!” but that’s not really what’s going on at all.

When you imagine “Old Testament messianic prophecies” to be a clearly-defined list of things that Jesus then proceeded to do, and then claim this as PROOF!!!1 that Jesus is the messiah- some Christians even go so far as to calculate the probability of someone fulfilling all the “prophecies”- and then try to back up this claim using what the bible actually says, the whole thing starts to fall apart. It sort of looks like the New Testament writers just hunted for stuff that was kind of similar to what Jesus did, and then claimed “oh Jesus TOTALLY fulfilled this PROPHECY, you guys,” even twisting or changing the Old Testament’s words. And that’s a very dishonest way to go about presenting “evidence” and “proof”.

Instead, I see it as discovering themes and ideas that recur throughout the bible. Making interesting connections between the story of Jesus and the story of the whole bible. Pretty cool, but definitely not evidence or proof of anything.

(Speaking of creative interpretations of the bible: this reminds me of the idea I heard floating around on the internet that Jesus was intersex or maybe transgender. Because, virgin birth... there’s no way for him to actually be biologically male. Personally I don’t believe this is actually true, but I think it’s good and useful to have biblical interpretations like this. It can help intersex/transgender people to believe that Jesus truly loves and understands them, which is definitely true. And for cis people, it challenges the idea that Jesus would be just like us and hold the same prejudices we do. If you’re not okay with Jesus being intersex/transgender, what does that say about the way you view intersex/transgender people? You know, people who are created in God’s image and fully loved by God.)

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And let’s get back to “The Bible Tells Me So.”

Basically, we spent the first four chapters of this book talking about how and why the bible came together, and how the writers didn’t mean it in the way that modern Americans would usually interpret it. How it’s so important that we keep in mind the author’s original intention. And now, in chapter 5, we find that Jesus didn’t do any of that when he interpreted the bible. He took stuff totally out of context and made it mean something that the writer never would have thought of.

Well, this is awkward. What are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to interpret the bible like Jesus? So, uh, how? Was there some method to what he did, or was he just making up random stuff? Because it really looks to me like he was just making up random stuff.

No, I don’t think we should take Jesus’ method of biblical interpretation as “the right” one. “The Bible Tells Me So” emphasizes that if Christians really believe that Jesus was fully God and fully human, then we must accept that he was a fully human first-century Jewish man, a full member of the Jewish culture of that time, and his approach toward interpreting the bible was right in line with that culture. He used the same methods and assumptions that they did, but came up with some new and controversial interpretations, mainly about how he himself was the focus of Scripture, and how “I and the Father are one” and all that. And that’s what made people mad.

Similarly, if Jesus came to a culture like that of 21st-century American evangelical Christianity, with its insistence on the bible being inerrant and carefully studying and proving one’s interpretations based on context, etc, Jesus would have used those methods. And still, he would have come up with dangerous and controversial ideas.

It seems that nowadays, evangelical Christian culture starts with the claim that the bible is the perfect, inerrant word of God and every word is totally right and from God and should be taken seriously and has something to teach us, and then they mostly just draw conclusions about policing other people’s sex lives. But other evangelicals discover passage after passage where God commands radical self-sacrifice to help the poor, and they take those passages just as literally, and dedicate their lives to it. Still others, like Matthew Vines, start with those same assumptions about the bible, and make strong biblically-based arguments calling for Christians to fully support LGB rights.

My point is, the same method can produce vastly different conclusions. I don’t think any particular biblical interpretation scheme is “right” or “wrong”- no, each can be used to do good or do evil, to save life or to destroy it. It’s not about information and arguments; it’s about your heart. Do you believe in loving your neighbor as yourself, or not?

In other words, we can’t necessarily know the “correct” interpretation based on logic. We need to have actual human compassion, like Jesus did when he rejected the bible and healed on the Sabbath. We are made in the image of God; we have a conscience and know, on some level, that it’s wrong to make someone suffer just because “that’s what God said.”

And now it seems we’ve come back around to what I said in my post about chapter 4. In that post, I said you need to use your brain. You need to trust your own brain when determining which specific parts of the bible would be meaningful for a particular situation in your life. In this post, I want to say use your heart. Everyone may have different perspectives and different ways to view the bible, but I think if you focus on love above everything else, you’ll be interpreting in the right direction.

Again, just like when I said you have to use your brain, this idea of following one’s heart is SO not okay in evangelical Christianity. Apparently, we are all absurdly sinful and depraved, so we need to do EXACTLY what the bible says; if we try to change or soften any of the rules, well obviously it’s just because we want to sin. That’s a common criticism whenever a Christian makes an argument that disagrees with what everyone else knows the bible clearly says. “You’re just following your emotions instead of the truth!!!”

Yeah, just like Jesus did when he healed on the Sabbath. Just like Jesus did when he let “unclean” people touch him. Disregarding the CLEAR TEACHING OF SCRIPTURE just because of his silly feelings of compassion or whatever.

(Question: If we use our own conscience, our own God-given understanding of right and wrong to interpret the bible and its teaching on right and wrong, then why do we even need the bible? Hmm I’ll have to think about that.)

Image source.

The bible says a lot of different things. We need to realize that there is no obvious “right way” to interpret it. The way Jesus read it was so different from the way modern Americans read it, and that’s okay. The important thing is to base everything on love. The bible is clear about that. 

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My other posts about The Bible Tells Me So:

The Worst Bible Story
Blaming the Biblical Victim (And More Horrifying Implications of Scripture) 

The Bible's Contradictions Matter, And It's Not a Logic Problem 
The Bible is a Model, So Use Your Brain 
Jesus Takes the Bible Out of Context 
The Old Testament Does Not Predict Jesus 
Peter Enns Makes Me Want to Actually Read the Bible Again

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