Saturday, May 14, 2016
Working It Out, A Thought At a Time
I've always been pretty confident in the way I look at scripture. I have always seen it as a most human endeavor.
We are a curious being. We like answers. When we are confused by the world, we seek to understand it. We seek to explain. We seek to predict if possible. We like answers, as I said.
I have mostly thought this way for a very long time. Common sense tends to dictate it surely. If indeed God wished to create a "manual for human living" I think he could have done so in pretty simple ways, similar to his alleged "giving of the 10". Concise, to the point, you know, CLEAR. While we may quibble about the parameters of some commandments, (does kill include all "killing" or only human defined "murder"?), for the most part they are pretty straight forward.
So when I began to formally study scripture with the assistance of learned teachers, it came as no surprise that however much we may infuse scripture with "Godly inspiration", it is still a human activity, meant to help other humans understand what is quite literally inexplicable. As such, it is open to an array of hermeneutical tools the average person has little contact with. There are form and source criticisms, redaction and textual, comparative, iconographic, psychological, anthropological , sociological, poetic, gender, feminist, liberationist, literary, and a host of others. They are all intent on trying to figure out exactly what the writer actually meant.
And I loved this more than you can imagine. It meant that there was really no end to the possibilities, no end to the new insights available. In that sense, scripture remains an alive and vibrant series of documents, giving endless bounty to the determined exegete.
I have, increasingly it seems, warred against the literalist, the fundamentalist, who is never one such except when it suits them. The bible must be read literally they exclaim, for some reason God waited until the KJV translation to use the "obvious words" that anyone with an 8th grade education can understand. But, that aside, they rebel at the idea that they need anyone to teach them anything. God teaches directly to the inquiring heart they claim.
Such people don't read stuff literally when it impinges upon their life style. No usury for me, THAT is a OT prohibition for Jews only, cancelled in the saving power of the Cross. They don't explain why they still cite Leviticus for the proposition that men should not "lay with men". But somehow that is "different." Like I said, they use literalism selectively. As many have said, "how curious that for the fundamentalist, God just happens to agree with everything they are against."
So, I was going along in my self-righteous assumptions, when as usual, the obvious hits me in the face. In reading something in a book on the early church fathers and the development of Christian theology, I noted that the New Testament writers quite often cited "scripture", and that included Jesus.
Suddenly it hit me. Did they cite scripture in a manner that would be akin to "literalism"? Did they treat scriptures as the "actual word of God"? If so, then wasn't my assumption that these were words of men in some difficulty?
As I mulled that thought over for a day, thinking of where I would search for an answer (since I knew there must be one), I of course ran directly into the answer. Funny how things work like that.
To know me, is to know that I cannot abide conflict. My brain simply screams FIX IT when confronted with believe in any two things that are in opposition. Drop one, add a third, alter one or both, but fix it. Make it make sense. My brain demands it. It has always been an utter shock for me to learn that some folks have no such problem with conflict. Fundamentalists are like this, blithely believing in things that are complete opposite, and never nagged in the slightest with the need to reconcile the disparate ideas.
A dear friend had sent me a box of books a while ago. I have slowly but surely worked on reading them. One is a Dictionary of New Testament Background, and I read an entry each morning. I am in the B's, and the day after my "conflict" I got to: Biblical interpretation: Jewish.
And I learned that almost from the beginning, Jewish scholars interpreted their scriptures not at all literally, but rather more as a "living" document.
An example may suffice to explain.
Many scholars (I'd argue the best and majority) see the US Constitution as a "living document". In other words, they argue that the true genius of the Constitution is that our Founders were wise enough to realize that they could not possible construct a government that could foresee all possible issues and controversies. So rather than being too terribly specific in the "rights" and "duties" department, they were deliberately vague, assuming that later generations would use the "principles" stated to fashion the proper solution to the very current problems being faced.
In other words, unreasonable searchers and seizures in the 4th amendment will change over time, as we define intellectual "property" to be treated no different than one's home or car. Such property can also be seized, and thus the legislature and judiciary together will define it's parameters. Similarly, the Warren Court concluded that taken together the first ten amendments constitute a "protection of privacy" which is not stated specifically but is a rational deduction from the others together.
Similarly, Jewish scholars considered scripture to be living as well, the genius to them was that interpretations would change to meet the current crises facing the community. So a literal statement in the bible would be interpreted in light of the problem needing an answer. These interpretations were in extra-canonical writings. There was no interest in "what the writer meant".
When we turn to the NT, and look at instances of citation to OT sayings, we find a similar response. The interpretation is often borrowed from these Jewish interpretations, as needed to make the point that needs making. Scripture was often changed to more clearly reflect what the NT author wished to convey. Jesus did exactly the same thing.
A perfect example is 2 Timothy 3:8, wherein Jannes and Jambres (two magicians from Egypt) opposed Moses. Nowhere in the OT are the two men named. However, the names are found in several ancient sources used to interpret those portions of Exodus pertaining to the events between Moses and Pharaoh regarding the plagues. So extra-biblical material is added to actual scripture by the interpreter, in order to make his point in Timothy.
Far from putting into danger my belief that scripture is written by humans for humans, and interpreted by them to solve present problems, it actually makes it crystal clear that this is the way interpretation was done, OBVIOUSLY BECAUSE NOBODY FROM DAY ONE EVER THOUGHT THAT SCRIPTURE WAS THE ACTUAL WORD OF GOD.
This is what scripture is to me. An endlessly fascinating examination of what we believed, why we believed it, and how it has changed over time as we have learned more. It makes sense.
Surely not a single fundamentalist will be convinced. Their compartmentalized thinking won't allow it firstly and secondly, it is all too comforting to interpret in a way that allows God always to agree with you in the end. Their deliverance to truth must come when in some moment of weakness they open the door just a crack, and the facade breaks and falls. Logic will never move them, since logic is something they are deeply suspicious of.
I am happy simply to realize that I am still on the road, I haven't fallen into a ravine, or waded too far into the raging current to recover. I am still, by fits and starts, leaps and crawls, working my way to unity with the divine.
Come, join us. The ride is wild, but oh so rewarding.