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Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Old Testament Does Not Predict Jesus

Image source.
Chapter 6 of Peter Enns' book The Bible Tells Me So is about how the New Testament writers handled Jesus' death and resurrection- a "surprise ending" to Israel's story.

Again and again, Enns emphasizes this point: If you just read the Old Testament, on its own terms, you will never guess that a crucified and resurrected messiah would be the next part of the story.

This is shocking to me, because I've always heard Christians talk about how there were totally so many Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by Jesus. And we always laughed at the disciples for not getting it.

But seriously. What happens in the Old Testament? God creates the world, but then people sin and there are all kinds of problems. So God creates a nation- God's chosen people. God brings them into the promised land and gives them the Torah, a covenant which guarantees God's blessing and protection if they obey. There are kings- some good and some bad- there are prophets warning the nation to repent, interpreting disasters as signs of God's judgment against sin. (Though I don't think God literally sent disasters as punishment- I think the prophets just used whatever bad things happened to be going on to argue that the people should repent. Because if you literally believe God caused a disaster because of people's sin, you get into some really horrific theology.) Eventually God's people get conquered and taken into exile. Later, some of them return to their homeland, and there are promises of God's blessings being restored.

So, what do you think happens next in the story?

Well, if you're an optimistic person, you probably would guess that God's people- the Jewish people- follow the Torah again, God gives them freedom so they are in control of their land, and David's line of kings continues. And all is well.

I've heard Christians say so many times, the disciples didn't "get it" because they expected the messiah to be a political leader who would challenge the Roman government. Well, yeah. If you just read the Old Testament, what else could you possibly think?

Yeah, so they came back from exile but still were controlled by the Roman empire. And then God appeared in human form, did miracles and taught people, and got killed and resurrected.

I... what?

How does that fit?

The New Testament writers had to make it fit. They had their history, culture, religion, and traditions on one hand, and their experiences of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection on the other. And make it fit they did. They reinterpreted everything with Jesus as the center.

Enns brings up two big concepts in this chapter, which would have been totally new and radical for Jews living in the time of Jesus. First, God's love was not limited to just the Jewish people. Jesus was the savior of the entire world- Jews and Gentiles. Second, keeping the Torah wasn't really the point. It was just temporary, and Jesus brings a new and better covenant.

To modern Christians, these ideas are totally not a big deal. Yeah, of course everyone can be a Christian. Of course we don't have to follow the Old Testament laws. But you can read in the New Testament about how this stuff was totally controversial. (See Acts 10-11, Acts 15, Romans 3:9, Galatians 2:11-14, and also everything else in the New Testament.)

Peter and Cornelius. "God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean." Acts 10:28. Image source.
There's one question I would like to ask, based on what I read in this chapter: If God appearing in human form didn't "fit" with what the Old Testament said, and they had to go back and reinterpret everything, then wouldn't it have been just as possible for God to appear in human form in the context of a different religion and culture? Was there anything special about first-century Jewish culture? Or could it also have worked with many other religions?

What if Jesus had appeared, say, among people who were polytheistic and believed in the whole group of Greek gods and goddesses? I believe Jesus would still be among the poor- his care for those who are oppressed is an essential part of his identity. Would that polytheistic religion then have been adapted and reinterpreted around Jesus? They could keep the parts that fit with the character of God/gods as revealed in Jesus- love for everyone, resurrection, justice, etc- and sort of ignore the other things their religion had previously taught them. It would be a new religion. And then that would be Christianity?

Maybe first-century Judaism wasn't the "true religion" at that time. Maybe Jesus just happened to show up there.

I suppose you could make the argument that Judaism still exists today, while most of the other ancient religions do not, so there is something special or "more true" about the God who is revealed in the Jewish scriptures.

Anyway, the point is that if you just read the Old Testament, you would never suspect that the next thing that happens is God shows up in human flesh. And I wonder if the same could be said for a lot of religions.

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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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