Things We Got Wrong about the Bible & Why It's Important to Get It Right
This was my presentation at St. Bede's Adult Forum on March 24, 2019. As members of the church choir misses these forums, I am posting this for them as well as for others who missed the event.
When I was in seminary our daily morning services consisted in Morning Prayer followed by Holy Communion. We were all expected to attend Morning Prayer, but communion was optional. Coming from a very low church, I was not at all used to daily communion, so I often joined others in leaving the chapel right after Morning Prayer. It was called "The Judas Walk," as. thought the more haughty high church seminarians, we were turning our back on Jesus as a kind of betrayal.
So, how do you remember Judas. What happened when he identified Jesus to the soldiers with a kiss?
In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) there are three occasions where a kiss is an important part of an event. They are found in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet in the Pharisee's house, and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. In their accounts of Judas' betrayal of Jesus by a kiss, both Matthew and Mark (Mark being the earliest gospel) describe the kiss using the Greek verb kataphileo, which means to kiss firmly, intensely, passionately, tenderly, or warmly. As Biblical scholar Clarence Jordan has it, kissing "over and over again."
Describing Judas' kiss, the author of Luke uses the simpler phileo (22:47) meaning, simply, "kiss" and philemati (22:48), denoting a kiss to show respect or gentle affection between friends.
Luke does use the more effusive kataphileo in the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet
and to describe the father's welcoming home of his son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The events in both of those stories are highly charged and speak of the depths of human caring.
So while Matthew and Mark describe Judas' kiss of betrayal in terms of its tenderness and intense passion, the author of Luke uses the more formal forms of the verb, phileo and philimata. When we pay attention to these differences, our understanding of Judas' betrayal takes on a quite different meaning. Instead of the usual explanations of Judas' betrayal as stemming from greed, radical disappointment, or wanting to force Jesus to claim his kingdom by might, what we have is an intense struggle in the mind of Judas -- a struggle between his deep affection for Jesus and his pledge, for whatever reasons, to the authorities. Anguish is probably the best way to describe Judas' emotional state. This is clearly a therapist's or an existentialist's dream - one we have missed over and over again.
So, when Luke tones down the intensity of Matthew and Mark's description of Judas' kiss
by the use of the relatively pedestrian phileo and philemati, was that done intentionally to set off Judas' kiss from that of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet and the father who smothered his returning son with kisses? Whatever the intent, Luke's change of the form of the verb has reduced Judas to a one dimensional figure at this point, robbing him and us of the immense power of this event.,
The Popular Claim that the Old Testament God is a God of Violence
While the God of the New Testament is a God of Love.
In this view, the Jewish Law is seen as a burden, something thoroughly rule based and oppressive. Nowhere, the claim goes, is that more evident than in the Book of Leviticus. So I want to talk about Leviticus, this most maligned Book of Bible to see if we've gotten this theory right or wrong. I want to focus on the Holiness Code (18-20), which in some way may be the high point in Biblical morality.
Much of Leviticus is concerned with the holy - not the ethereal, spiritual holy, but with the root sense of the word, as "set apart." The People of God had been set apart, made holy. They were different from other peoples and that was reinforced by what they were to eat, how they were related to one another sexually, and even what fabrics they could wear. It was not that they were better than anyone else: they had been chosen, in a sense, to be a city set on a hill. They belonged to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in a special way (Oddly enough, Abraham is noted for, among other things, his lying to save himself, Isaac's name meant "laughter," and Jacob stole his brother's birthright - giving us "The God of the Liar, Laughter, and the Larcenist." As Norman Ewart wrote "how odd of God to choose the Jews."
Much of the morality of Leviticus has to do with our participation in the reality of God. Here are two high points taken from the Holiness Code in the middle of Leviticus: note that each ends with "I am the Lord your God,"
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyards bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard: you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. Lev. 19:9-10
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Lev. 19:33-34.
This concern for the poor, for the stranger is probably unequalled in all of Scripture and it is enjoined because that is who God is. My last parish was as rector of John Steinbeck's parish church in Salinas, California and some of my parishioners were the leaders of the lettuce industry - and they followed those words of Leviticus, leaving a tenth of their produced for the poor. They were reflecting the very character of God. In part that is also reflected in St. Paul's urging us "to put on Christ."
Another thing: Jews have always considered the Law as a gift, as it let them know what God expected of them. I think any of us would have been relieved to know what our boss or our supervisor expected of us.
In the Old Testament, there are several strains or traditions of morality:
First, there is the morality based on the character of God (also, with their dietary laws, reflecting the experience of a nomadic people).
Second, there is the practical, most clear in the delightful Book of Proverbs, where we learn how to be a moral merchant, how to choose a wife, and about such character traits as laziness and generosity.
Third, the tradition of social justice, as in Amos and the major prophets.
Amos 7:7-9 God requires that our morality be judged by a plumbline.
Amos 6:4ff. He addresses income inequality/indifference to the poor.
5:21-24 This is the heart of Martin Luther King Jr's faith. I believe this is the high point of Biblical ethics.
Jesus' parables have different purposes, mainly what it means to live in Kingdom of God.
The Biblical scholar Amos Wilder (Thornton Wilder's brother) wrote that they represent a paradigm in conflict with the prevailing cultural values of the time. They are an assault on our cultural paradigms: what we value or prize, how we are organized, middle class ethics, what we reward. This is clearest in the parables of the Workers in the Vineyard, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin (where God's generosity is mirrored in the prodigality/generosity of the woman who spends many times the value of her lost but found coin for the party to celebrate her success!.
There are several instances where the bite, the controversial nature of a parable is undercut by either translations or later explanations. The most striking is the Parable of the Leaven (Luke 13:21-22 and Matthew 13:33). The Pharisees have just asked Jesus to explain what he meant by "the kingdom of God."
20. Again he said, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God with? 21 It is like a woman who took leaven and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
There have been hundreds of thousands sermons on this parable, focusing on the way that our faith grows and grows over the years until . . .However, there is a problem here. Recently it was pointed out that the only meaning of leaven in the New Testament is "corruption," "evil," as "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees." All of a sudden we discovered the revolutionary character of this parable. Can you imagine the horror of the Pharisees? First, a woman is the metaphor for God, but then there is what she does: she takes corruption and hides in the middle of the purity of the flour, kneads it together until the elements are indistinguishable and then it represents the Kingdom of God. What this does, it seems to me, is shift our conception of what is required to be part of the Kingdom away from personal morality - more about that at another time. But you can see how a powerful parable has been turned into a Hallmark card - just because of a mistranslation.
The same is true with the Parable of the Unjust Judge, only here through the addition of an added explanation. Luke 18:2-5
1. And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 "He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by her continually coming.'" 6. And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?
With the explanation (in italics here), the parable is an exhortation to pray diligently: if the widow finally gets what her family needs from this crooked judge, how much easier it will be with God. A gentle, kindly story. However, with the explanation removed, it is clear that the widow (again a woman) is the metaphor for God - like the hound of heaven, coming back and back until His will is fulfilled. What a great parable for those parents dealing with a child seemingly lost to drugs or criminality. God never gives up.
The process has, in my opinion, domesticated the Parable of the Sower. The explanation focuses the parable on the soils, describing how different situations or character flaws keep us from being productive members of the kingdom, turning the parable into a theology of works! How different it is when the focus is on the Sower, sowing seeds where there is little hope for harvest. It's not only the spiritually receptive who receive the blessing, but those who through limited intellectual capacity, maybe advanced ADHD, or as a result of being sexually abused are unable to respond at the same level as the spiritually gifted. After all, it is with the outcasts with whom Jesus spent most of his time.
You can always disregard the explanations - added by editor who "didn't get it."
Relationship between Christianity and Judaism/ Jews and Christians
When I was in seminary, probably the most prevalent notion of this relationship was what was called Triumphalism, that once Jesus had come to fulfill the Law the Jewish religion had been supplanted. At its worst, Jews who had rejected Jesus as Lord were traitors. Mostly, though, Judaism was treated with tolerance and for its importance in leading up to the Christian faith.
Fairly recently things have changed, first through the publication of Karl Barth's Commentary on Romans, published in German in 1920 and in English in 1930. Barth's conclusions on the critical nature of Romans 9-11 were popularized by the Swedish bishop and New Testament scholar, Krister Shendahl, while teaching at Harvard and Paul Van Buren, an Episcopal priest teaching at Temple University. Their critical insight or observation was that God does not break promises, therefore the promise made to Abraham that he would be the father of the people of God remains. The Jews remain the People of God and we as the Christian church have been grafted into Jewish holy history. Thus, our relationship to Judaism is one of dependence, not superiority.
Same Gender Relationships
For centuries, the Christian church believed that homosexuality and homosexual behavior was condemned in the Bible". What is condemned is male Prostitution and exploitive relationships involving two men. In the Bible there is only one description of a homosexual relationship based on mutuality, sacrificial love, and commitment. That is the relationship between Jonathan and David. Though conservatives believe their relationship was not sexual, I believe the text says differently.
The conflict within the church about homosexuality mirrors the previous debate within the church about slavery. On the one side has been those who proof texted or used selected quotes from Scripture to defend its position in favor of slavery and against tolerating homosexual relationships and acts. On the other side have been those who argued that the overall witness of Scripture is against the toleration and practice of slavery and in favor of the church's affirmation of same gender relationships and sexuality.
My favorite piece on the matter comes from the author, Frederick Buechner. He writes that when we say God is love, one of the things we mean is that all love comes from God. There is no other source. It is not one of the things in our power. It happens through us for the other. What this tells me is what St. Paul in Galatians 5 tells us, that when we observe the marks of the Holy Spirit or the presence of agape love, that indicates the blessing of God. There is much more to say, but this is a good beginning.
I have often heard comedian Bill Maher challenge self-identified Christians by asking "How can anyone believe in a religion with a talking snake?" The line always got a chuckle from his audience, even while demonstrating the amazing ignorance of Bill Maher, who is unaware of the role of myth and metaphor in dealing with the ultimate questions about human life. and in our addressing our relationship with the infinite.
No respectable Biblical scholar of any Christian denomination believes that the stories involved in the creation narratives were intended to serve as history. Their function is etiology, trying to make sense of our place in the world, questions of meaning, purpose, guilt and shame, death and so much more. There are multiple authors of these accounts, ranging from those referred to as "J" for their use of "Yahweh" to refer to God and their existentialist bent to the school of writers called "P" or Priestly School, known for their interest in details and their interest in rituals and priestly governance. J's focus on the creation is reflected in the stories of Adam and Eve and the rest, while P devised the scheme of the seven days of creation - and if you pay close attention you can spot traces of both schools interwoven in each other's narratives in Genesis. They are also probably the first existentialists in recorded history.
With these stories and others the question is not when or whether they took place (ala Bill Maher and other scoffers). The right question about myths is not "when did it happen?" but "where is it happening?"
When I was in Salinas, California I experienced all this as I observed the story of Cain and Abel being lived out in Steinbeck's "East of Eden" in the Salinas Valley. Bruce and Steve Taylor had controlling interest in Fresh Express produce, the successor to the great Bruce Church company, the largest lettuce company in the Salinas Valley. When Steve "got religion," he initiated a brutal battle, forcing Bruce out of the family business. Bruce, my parishioner, then started Taylor Farms, which is now the equal of Fresh Express. The struggles between these two brothers took place within a larger context which had continued through generations - and which has been experienced in other family and cultures. Thus, the important question about these myths of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, and the Tower of Babel should never be "When did it happen?" but "Where is it happening?" And as we will see in a future Forum, they have happened over and over again in communities, intimate relationships, and even among nations.