Jesus the Tanakh-thumper?

One citation of choice for those insisting that Jesus affirmed the typically Fundamentalist and Evangelical view of Scripture as our “infallible rule of faith and practice” is John 10.34-36, in which Jesus’ part of an argument with the Jewish leaders is recorded thus:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods’ to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?’

Many read this as Jesus confirming the full authority of the Old Testament as supporting their contention that the Bible is the “Word of God”. But the unquestioned assumptions behind the use of this verse as a prooftext are a mile deep.

First, as I explained before, logically it is only post-canon that we can even conceivably view the Bible in its entirety as “the word of God”. And as it happens, we have good evidence that such an interpretation would be particularly invalid here.

For one thing, referring to the Tanakh (the Jewish canon such as it was at the time) using the Greek word graphē (lit. ‘writing, text’) was done in the plural, hence “the Scriptures”.  But here graphē is used in the singular: this means that “the Scripture” that “cannot be broken,” here refers only to the specific passage or “word of God” in question, i.e. “you are gods” from Psalm 82.6. It does not refer to the entire Jewish or Christian canon. Once again, you can’t just read “word of God” and think “the Christian canon”: here as usual the passage being referred to is not just any old passage of the Old Testament, but what purports to be a direct quote from God (“I have said…”). Plus, “the word of God” is qualified by “to whom the word of God came”: in other words, the entire Bible did not come to the audience of Psalm 82, so we know that only that particular text is being referred to as the “word/message of God” on this occasion. The apologist will want to extend this to the whole Bible, but they are responsible for proving why that is legitimate.

The more important point, however, is that in this passage Jesus is shown giving an undoubtedly rhetorical argument, arguing from within his opponents’ viewpoint but not necessarily adopting it himself. Perhaps most obviously, apart from Mormons I doubt many people really think Jesus was calling everyone “gods” in the sense we think of it: elohim meant either “mighty ones” or “God”, and we certainly have no other evidence to suggest Jesus thought of everyone as deities. John is picturing Jesus dishing out a bit of witty repartee dripping with irony, not a solemn theological exegesis of Scripture.

It’s not really in dispute whether the Jews, and hence presumably Jesus himself, upheld their Scriptures as having a divine source and authority, but there’s reason to suppose that Jesus is laying it on a little thick here: in verse 34, John paints Jesus referring to the Jewish Scriptures as “your Law”–not “our Law”, “God’s Law”, or even just “the Law”. Just like all throughout the rest of the Fourth Gospel, that places Jesus as an outsider to the Jewish religious system. In effect, he’s saying, “In your own Scripture it says ‘you are gods’, and that message of God can’t be broken (right?). So why are you so inconsistent?”

From verse 1 of the Gospel, Jesus is pictured as the personification of God’s message to humanity that trumped everything the Jews previously thought was God’s message.

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

John 5.39-40

Now, as unique and distinctive as the Gospel of John is, this understanding of Jesus as the superseding Word of God is quite consonant with the other books of the New Testament. And when truly grasped, this understanding is fairly devastating to the typical inerrantist approach to Christianity. Here’s what I mean.

One of the most consistent presentations of Jesus’ teaching, serving as the lifeblood of so much of the New Testament, is the idea that rote obedience to God is insufficient and that cultivating and living up to God’s ideals is paramount. This is behind the standard Reformation doctrine of sola fide, in which we are set free from the Law of Moses with all its rituals and reconciled to God through Jesus alone. In all four Gospels Jesus is shown making a point to unshackle valid religious observance from hollow, blind ritualism. This is commonly understood by inerrantists.

What’s not always recognized is that Jesus was not afraid to take Scriptures and declare them or their appropriation by the literalists of the day to be inadequate to please God; this happens most obviously in Matthew 5’s recurring “You have heard it said, but I say…” He is commonly shown taking up the mantle of the OT prophet and prying up the planks of literalistic adherence to Torah:

  • When challenged about associating with yet-impenitent sinners: “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (cf. Isaiah 1.13-23, Amos 5.21-25);
  • After picking grain on the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
  • Simply refraining from acting out in anger is not enough: “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…”
  • Undermining the rationale behind Torah’s purity laws: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (see this discussion)

For Jesus, as F.F. Bruce put it, “The law is fulfilled ethically rather than ceremonially.”That ethic can be summed up as acting in love, as is borne out in his exaltation of two commandments as the “greatest”; anything the Law and the Prophets say that has value is a manifestation of loving the Lord with all your being and proving it by loving your neighbor as yourself. This is the law of love.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13.34-35

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.

Romans 13.8

Ritual is a legitimate and even valuable way to express devotion to God and love for one’s neighbor: slavish obedience to rituals resulting in breaking those two great commandments, whether because the laws and rituals don’t go far enough in helping us avoid breaking those commandments or because they entice us to act against them, is defective and counterproductive. This is, in fact, the meaning of Jesus’ statements that he came to “fulfill” rather than “abolish” the Law: Jesus wasn’t campaigning against the Law as a set of rituals meant to evince one’s disciplined love of God and neighbor, but was intent on getting his countrymen to do the more important job of fulfilling the purpose behind the Law, which frequently includes going above the letter of the Law rather than ignoring it.

My point: even if Jesus agreed with inerrantists that the Old Testament Scriptures are word-for-word from God above (and it is difficult to find evidence that he did), he certainly did make it a point to warn that using Scripture as an “infallible rule of faith and practice” is a hopelessly backwards way of trying to serve God faithfully.

This dissatisfaction with treating Scripture as an ideal standard continues throughout the New Testament. As Paul memorably put it, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” In Galatians the Law is described as a schoolmaster that’s been replaced by Jesus. Peter in Acts is shown that following laws of ritual purity grieves God’s heart because it marginalizes people He has declared clean. For the author of Hebrews, the New Covenant Jesus established is “better” than the old one in that the law of God is written on our hearts instead of stone. Everywhere we look, we see early Christian testimony that says, “The Law was great, but it was insufficient to create righteousness.” I could go on and on. It’s the core of Christianity. The central insight energizing the Christian faith is that now, as then, the Scriptures are only useful inasmuch as they help us live out the first and second greatest commandments faithfully.

So when I read Jesus criticizing the practice of korban in Mark 7, I perceive that he was far more interested in the ethical truth behind the commandment to honor one’s parents, as given full weight by the prescribed penalty of execution for those who insulted their parents, than he was in affirming the Old Testament – still less the Christian canon – as the “standard of faith and practice” . Jesus taught us to observe the letter of the Law only insofar as it helps us fulfill the heart of God that we find represented in the two greatest commandments–the law of love.

Please note that this is a far, far cry from the prooftext-laced condemnations of behavior that we see coming out of many inerrantists. Where we see Jesus condemning behavior, it’s not for issues of personal holiness: it’s because he saw a system, built as it was around avoiding breaking Torah, that ran roughshod over those whom God demanded to be cared for as a primary act of devotion to Himself. For modern-day inerrantists, it’s different: instead of adding impossible regulations to fail-proof our adherence to the Bible’s demands for righteousness, we add the notion of non-negotiable doctrines that go far beyond Jesus’ New Command and end up violating the law of love just the same.

In summary, those who believe in a supremely authoritative Bible cite Jesus to support their view of inerrancy by assuming that Jesus somehow referred to the Bible as the Word of God, uniformly inspired by the Holy Spirit. Over the last few posts I think I have shown that a claim for Jesus’ acceptance of the modern Protestant’s God’s-Word-ism goes far outside of the scope of evidence. And regardless, I think it’s clear that at very least he would not draw the same sorts of conclusions from God’s-Word-ism that modern inerrantists so commonly do, especially regarding their bedrock, non-negotiable belief that the Bible is our sole “standard of faith and practice”. It is the law of love, internalized and painstakingly woven throughout our interactions, that should be our standard of faith and practice, and at times when our doctrines derived from the Bible lead us to violate that law that should be imprinted upon our hearts, we must respectfully release those doctrines and cling for dear life to the law of love.

So if you choose , against all the evidence, to maintain cognitive assent to the idea that the Bible is inerrant, that still shouldn’t be the foundation of your life in Christ. Even if true, it amounts to trivia. What matters is what you do when that inerrant Bible seems to be encouraging you to strain at doctrinal gnats while swallowing ethically rancid camels, treating the perceived shortcomings of others as grounds to violate Jesus’ highest commandment.

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