Thursday, March 26, 2009

Faith, Text, Tradition, and Community, Part V: On Why David Plotz Ought to Read the New Testament

We are nearing the end of our engagement with David Plotz's account of his reading the entire Hebrew Bible from start to finish, and his coming out an enriched, yet also entrenched and angry, agnostic. To review, Part I addressed Israel's example of having Yahweh alone with whom to do; Part II the non-hagiographical memory of God's people; Part III the necessity of belonging to a reading community; and Part IV the mountainous geography (or non-flatness) of Scripture. In this post we turn to Plotz's stance on the New Testament.

Plotz is up front about his not reading the New Testament: "I do give Jesus short shrift, because I wrote about the Hebrew Bible but not the New Testament. That's a fair beef." He felt he could give a "very irreverent, very personal reading" of the Old Testament because he is a Jew, but could not with the New Testament, that "someone who belonged to the group" could treat the life of Jesus fairly, not "some outsider chucking spitballs." In more detail, he says one of the two responses he gets when sharing his dismay over the God found in the Hebrew Bible is from Christians:
Well, yes, but this is all setup for the New Testament. Reading only the Old Testament is like leaving halfway through the movie. I'm missing all the redemption. If I want to find the grace and forgiveness and wonder, I have to read and believe in the story of Jesus Christ, which explains and redeems all. But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins. And even if he did, I still don't think that would wash away God's crimes in the Old Testament.
As I have sought to do throughout this series, I want to honor the rich generosity Plotz offers toward Christians and the New Testament. He has no interest in lobbing softball criticisms as an outsider against a book over which he really has no "ownership." He wants to stick with "his" book, his people's book, and as a part of that family he can faithfully and even irreverently respond in honesty.

Instead, I want to address three specific aspects of the worldviews in play here: first, that the New Testament is of a different kind than the Old, and thus not open to the same kind of reading; second, that "Jewishness" is incompatible with the New Testament or excludes being a Christian; third, that there is a radical disjuncture between the Old and New Testaments, as well as the type of God and the messages present in each. So here are three propositions.

1. The New Testament is an inherently Jewish document grounded in the life and faith of the people Israel.

It is a terrible and unfortunate misconception today that "Christian" and "Jew" are thought of in the general consciousness as two separate, untranscendable, mostly unrelated descriptions of "religious faith communities," just as you might say "Buddhist and Muslim" or "Sikh and Hindu." How greatly the early Christian communities would object! How profoundly Jesus would object!

Fortunately, the wealth of New Testament scholarship over the last few decades has largely disabused the accepted notion that Jesus or Paul came preaching a "new religion" called "Christianity" in opposition to or in radical rupture with nascent Judaism. Scholars like E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright have been on the forefront of relocating Jesus and Paul back squarely in their first century Jewish (Pharisaic) context.

Jesus came preaching good news to Israel of God's imminent reign and coming judgment, for repentance and justice and renewed faithfulness to Yahweh. Jesus grew in the language and faith of his people, and came to know and learn in the study of Israel's Scripture ("the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms") and participation in Israel's worship. Jesus was, in all respects, in his entire person and teaching and ministry, a Jew. Whatever critiques or changes Jesus enacted or taught (or planted), they belong to a long line of "in house" criticism found in Israel's prophetic tradition.

The New Testament itself is composed largely, if not entirely, by Jews. Luke is the only general-consensus Gentile to have written anything, and his works are some of the most Old Testament-infused books of the entire NT canon. The single great literary influence on the New Testament is the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Any difference from Jewish practice or belief found in the ekklesia is a difference by relation: no, Yahweh is, or has done, this rather than that; no, the Hebrew Scriptures mean x rather than y. The new thing that these Jewish followers of the Jewish Messiah believe the Jewish God has done involves the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures and of the promises to the Jewish people. That much is certain.

Which raises, though, the obvious question: If it was a Jewish message by and for the Jewish people, what in the world were Gentiles doing in the ekklesia? That leads us to our second proposition.

2. "Christian" is not a separate entity than "Jew," nor is it equivalent to "Gentile"; thus there is no incompatibility between being a Jew and being a Christian.

Gentiles were welcomed into the assemblies of people who called on Jesus as the Messiah of Israel because the early Messianic Jews believed that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Yahweh had acted not only on behalf of Israel but on behalf of the entire cosmos. That is, the salvation offered in Christ for Israel was salvation for the Gentiles as well. Furthermore, one of the things God had accomplished in the cross was the abolition of the dividing wall, the hostility, between Jew and Gentile, such that in the ekklesia the renewed people of God might be constituted by reconciled Jew and Gentile in peaceful fellowship and family with one another. Other social classes were affected, too -- namely gender and economic barriers -- but this difference, that of Jew/non-Jew, was primary, or at least the most important (or unexpected) for those in the first century.

This is where the question of Paul enters the picture. So many throughout the church's history have read Paul's letters as a kind of ongoing outright rejection of all things Jewish. Instead of rehashing the monumental argument in scale, I'll only say two things. First, let us remember (or recognize) that the communities to which Paul writes, especially those composed mostly of Gentile believers, sound strangely familiar with Jewish Scripture and forms of thought. That is, it should strike us as odd that Paul can extensively quote the Old Testament as some sort of authority to Gentiles, as if they either know it already or recognize it as binding on them. In some sense, these Gentiles have become Jews, or Jewish, in their identity, thought processes, holy texts, forms of life -- in a word, in their culture.

Second, however, it is clear the one thing Paul does not intend to do in his preaching and founding ekklesiai across the Empire is to make Jews of Gentiles. His ongoing argument (with fellow Jewish believers in Jesus), rather, is that Gentiles may be welcomed into the covenant community precisely as Gentiles. That is, while every recognizable identity marker of these Gentile Jesus-people seems unmistakably Jewish, the one thing that marks out Jews as Jews cannot be forced upon the Gentiles: Torah. The markers of the Law -- particularly, among other things, circumcision -- cannot in any way, according to Paul, be that which marks out God's Gentile-including people. The one thing, instead, is Jesus the crucified Messiah. The gospel, the good news of this Jesus, is the one thing which calls and makes Gentiles partakers in the promises of Israel. No other thing, including the God-given and good Law, may function in that role.

Regrettably, this Jewish in-house argument quickly became a bludgeon by which to demonize Jews as God-rejected Christ-killers who were ontologically separate from and not (able to be) included in the church. Thus to be "a Jew" became another way of saying "certainly not a Christian." Jews, understandably, similarly took the other fork in the road, marking themselves out in even clearer ways as "not Christian," and two millenia later we find two deeply divided traditions with the greatest possible barriers and differences (and often hostility) between them -- in utter contravention to the situation of the first century. (Not that there wasn't hostility between synagogue and church; only that there was natural go-between, that Jews made up a large portion of the churches, and that dialogue was open and frequent.)

One more problem, already noted in previous posts, is that to be a Jew today, as in the past, is a complicated affair. An atheist who decries synagogue and lives among Gentiles could say he or she is a Jew merely by birth. Similarly, a Jew by birth could remain agnostic yet committed to the cultural forms of life that mark out the Jewish people. Further, a Jew by birth could be orthodox in belief and practice as well as belong to said Jewish cultural forms. Finally, a Gentile by birth may "convert" to Judaism, such that he or she might be able to identify as "Jewish."

In other words, this is complicated stuff. All I want to say is that in response to Plotz ("But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins."), it is understandable, for all the historical reasons listed above, that, because he is a Jew, he thinks he cannot be a Christian or ought not to read the New Testament. However, even though it is understandable today, the authors and characters of the New Testament would not comprehend such a reason -- in fact, they would say that it is all the more reason to listen to the gospel!

To the third proposition.

3. The God in the Old Testament is the same God in the New Testament.

Here I want to make abundantly clear that, while in some sense Christians do believe that to stop reading before the New Testament is "like leaving halfway through the movie" -- more out of the centrality of Jesus than the supposed "incompleteness" of the Old Testament -- there is no "divine shake up" in the supposed "four hundred years of silence." The Old Testament is not "all setup for the New Testament." The God of the Old Testament is not a vengeful, irrational, archaic deity who gives way to a God of love in the New. The God who created the heavens and the earth, who called Abraham and promised him a people, who brought Israel up out of bondage in Egypt, is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead and poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Not only that, we believe that in Jesus of Nazareth, the human being, Yahweh the God of Israel came in flesh and blood and walked the earth. And so we believe that we know most directly, distinctively, and decisively the character and person of Yahweh in the life, teaching, and ministry of this Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus to stop before Jesus, Christians believe, is to stop, not before finally seeing "grace and forgiveness and wonder," though there is that, but to pause mid-step in the story of Yahweh and Israel. This, as N.T. Wright calls it, is the climax of the covenant. I needn't do a second extended rehearsal of what happened in the cross and resurrection, but, briefly: We believe that in the Messiah Jesus all the promises of Yahweh are yes, and that the doors of Israel have been flung open to the nations. This newly reconstituted people of God is called the church. That is the new news of the New Testament writings for Israel.

To go a different route, though, let's look at a story Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31. (I should give credit beforehand to Dean Gail O'Day, Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Candler, who did a wonderful exegesis of this passage in class a month or so ago.) A rich man in Israel walks past a beggar named Lazarus outside his gate every day; both die, Lazarus going to be with Abraham and the rich man to hell. The rich man calls out to Abraham and they have a conversation in which Abraham explains how the good and evil the rich man and Lazarus experienced in life have now been reversed for all eternity, in an unbridgeable gap so that they may never pass between their two places. The rich man begs Abraham, then, to send Lazarus to his brothers who are still living to warn them so they won't end up in hell with him. Abraham replies, "They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them." The rich man says, "No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." And Abraham replies, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

On the one hand, this might sound like just the kind of anti-Jewish story I claimed above doesn't exist in the New Testament. The Jews should have listened to their Scriptures! Not even Jesus' resurrection could convince them! But pause for a moment, and listen to what Jesus is saying.

Jesus seems to be saying, by a great mystery, that the Law and the Prophets witness to the story of the gospel. Or, put another way, Moses and Isaiah preach the good news. Or, a third time, if we cannot come to the heart of the gospel -- about who God is and what God is doing and how God calls us to live -- through the Old Testament, then we won't get it through Jesus, either.

That is a radical claim! Dean O'Day connected this passage to Romans 4:17, where Paul writes of "the God ... who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist." Is Yahweh the God who does these things? Yes! Yahweh speaks, and the cosmos burst into being. Yahweh molds, and human beings stand up on two feet. Yahweh calls, and Abraham answers. Yahweh extends an outstretched arm, and Israel marches out of Egypt. Yahweh breathes, and a valley of dry bones comes to life.

Or one thinks of the short creedal statement of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures." The phrase "in accordance with the scriptures" is not a proof-texting one-to-one prophecy reference, as if we can find a secret code hidden in the Hebrew Bible that Israel should have known all along. Rather, what God did in the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus was "in accordance with," in extension of, part of the same story as, the logical climax to, Torah-Nevi'im-Kethuvim.

Thus, neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter nor James nor John nor Luke nor anyone else in the New Testament, anyone belonging to the ekklesia of God, Jew or Gentile, would have ever imagined dividing Old and New Testaments, much less the God or the messages of either. There is "grace and forgiveness and wonder and redemption" in the Old Testament just as in the New. That is the business God has always been in: it's his calling card. It is difficult to go more than a page or two in the Old Testament without stumbling upon Israel's God forgiving again, waiting again, rescuing again, loving again. It is there; the Jesus Christians confess as Lord is the same Jesus who came to know Israel's God, and to preach that God's coming good reign upon the earth, in the Hebrew Bible.

What is "missing" from the Old Testament, if anything, is Jesus, not a God of love or grace. And in truth nothing is "missing" because, as the New Testament resounds over and over, "the time is fulfilled" or "the time has come." Jesus is God's time for the world, and he was not meant to come any sooner.

Two concluding notes. First, that David Plotz, friendly member of the Jewish people, is welcome to read the New Testament! Preferably not alone, hopefully in connection with a community of Jesus-followers who share life together; but welcome all the same. No ethnicity or race or culture or religion -- much less Jewishness in any of those categories! -- precludes anything of the sort.

Second, that the Christian Bible we have in our hands is the size it is for a reason. The slimmer "New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs" version so often handed out is, as my Old Testament Professor Brent Strawn would say, a Marcionite Bible. Marcion was the 2nd century heretic who argued that the Jewish creator god was an evil and secondary god to the Christian God of love revealed in Jesus and the Christian Scriptures. The church rejected this view, because the same God witnessed to by Israel is the same God found in Jesus. Praise God for such a momentous decision! May we remember to live it today.

[Images courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

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