This is Part 4 in a series of posts about the Bible. (See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).
2013 Me: If I’m going to ask tough questions about the truth of the Bible, and if the meaning of the Bible depends on how you interpret it, then I should probably read the Bible in its original historical context. So tell me, what does the Bible say in its original historical context?
2016 Me: If you want to read the Bible in its original historical context, you should start by realizing that each “book” is a distinct document with its own distinct context. Try a more specific question.
Fine. Here’s an easy one: in their original historical context, do the letters of Paul teach that God decides who goes to hell in advance, or does God leave that up to the decisions of humans? Let’s finally put the Arminian vs. Calvinist debate to rest!
Actually, if you ask mainstream biblical scholars (i.e. scholars whose work is respected outside of fringe groups with rigid theological views), few (if any) will tell you that Paul was mostly concerned with who goes to “heaven” and who goes to “hell.” Paul, like most Jews of his day, seems to have been mainly concerned with God’s redemptive restoration of all Creation. The typical reading of Paul that you grew up with (borrowed from Augustine and Luther) is often dramatically at odds with the interpretation offered by mainstream scholars.
Wait, if scholars don’t think that Paul was writing about how God made a way for us to avoid going to hell like we deserve, then what do they make of “justification by faith, not by the works of the law”? Obviously Paul, like all Christians, felt guilty about his inability to live up to moral perfection! That’s the whole point of Jesus!
Most scholars would interpret the “works of the law” as the identity markers (like circumcision and a regulated diet) that distinguished Jews from other peoples. The Jews of Paul’s day weren’t as anxious about their moral perfection as Luther was. According to scholars, Paul was excited about justification by faith rather than justification by works because anyone can have faith, regardless of whether they’re a Jew or a Gentile. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God had begun restoring Creation, and to Paul, that meant that the family of God was finally opened up to include Gentiles who want to join.
This is making me sick. I thought that reading the Bible in its historical context would help clarify my beliefs! This is only making things more complicated!
It looks like scholars have ruined the awesome letters of Paul. Justification by faith used to mean so much to me. Please tell me that scholars haven’t ruined Jesus, too!
If by “ruin” you mean “interpret differently than your Sunday School teacher,” then I’m afraid that the historians who study Jesus really ruin Jesus.
For starters, not every Gospel story is treated equally. The Gospel of John, for example, seems to contain hardly any historically accurate stories about Jesus. After all, if Jesus really went around giving long rants about himself, saying things like “No one comes to the Father except through me” and “Before Abraham was, I am,”you would think that the other Gospel writers would’ve at least mentioned it. But unlike John, the other Gospels depict Jesus telling short parables and keeping the rants about his identity to a minimum.
Biblical scholars treat the Gospels as stories that demonstrate what Jesus had come to mean to the early Jesus-movement communities, not as straightforward historical records of the earthly life of Jesus. With so little material to work with and so much room for interpretation, mainstream scholars have produced many very different reconstructions of the so-called “historical Jesus.”
That is the most disturbing thing I’ve read in a very long time. But I’ve heard that there is solid historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus… Please tell me that at least that part is true!
I’ll probably write a series of blog posts about resurrection later, but the short version is that it’s complicated. Some mainstream biblical scholars and many biblical scholars outside of the mainstream (i.e. scholars who only discuss their interpretation of the Bible with people who share their conservative theological convictions) who do think that there are good historical reasons to believe in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.
With that being said, a strong majority of mainstream biblical scholars do not believe that the evidence “proves” Jesus’ resurrection. As one Evangelical apologist complained “my guess is that between 60% and 80% of the members of [the Society of Biblical Literature] do not believe that Jesus’ death paid for our sins, or that he was bodily raised from the dead.”
So if you go purely off of consensus among mainstream experts (which you should probably do unless you know a lot about the surrounding historical context of the Bible), you at least have to admit that the bodily resurrection of Jesus isn’t a self-evident fact of history.
Each paragraph you write is more terrifying than the one before it.
Just so I get this straight, you’re telling me that now I have to give up the version of “justification by faith” that I grew up with, treat the Gospels like fairy tales, and believe that Jesus stayed dead after he was crucified?
No, no and no!
Wait, why not? You just said that –
– All I said was that mainstream historians don’t agree that the New Testament interpreted within its historical context supports the predominantly conservative theological convictions that you grew up with. I never said that your beliefs about God should be based on the consensus of historians!
How crazy would that be?! Imagine that your beliefs about God need to be approved by a small group of people with PHDs! As if God was just waiting for over-educated Westerners in the 21st Century to finally tell everyone what God is really trying to say through the Bible! What a joke!
It would’ve been nice if you had led with all of that. Maybe I could’ve avoided the successive panic attacks that this post has given me.
Oh please. You wouldn’t have listened to me! You were so set on pressing the Bible into a single meaning that you could somehow turn into Absolute Truth! Praise God that the current state of Biblical Scholarship is such that you can’t smush the Bible into your desperate theological framework!
I came to historical research hoping to make the Bible more certain and fixed, but this has only made my problems worse. Is there any way forward?
We have finally arrived! Next time we’ll talk about how I relate to the Bible today in light of the problems of interpretation and historical research.
Your relationship with the Bible better be pretty airtight, because I’m going to be just as critical as your views as you have been of mine!
Click here for “What is the Bible? Pt5: Medium of God’s Word?“
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