different angles

February 26, 2009 at 3:07 am 6 comments

flight

In his textbook, “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings“, Bart Ehrman writes regarding the gospel of Matthew:

Understanding this second way in which Jesus fulfills the Scripture for Matthew helps to explain certain aspects of the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (chaps. 1-5) that have long intrigued scholars. Think about the following events in rough outline, and ask yourself how they might have resonated with a first-century Jew who was intimately familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. A male child is miraculously born to Jewish parents, but a fierce tyrant in the land (Herod) is set to destroy him. The child is supernaturally protected from harm in Egypt. Then he leaves Egypt and is said to pass through the waters (of baptism). He goes into the wilderness to be tested for a long period. Afterward he goes up on a mountain and delivers God’s Law to those who have been following him.

Sound familiar? It would to most of Matthew’s Jewish readers. Matthew has shaped these opening stories of Jesus to show that Jesus’ life is a fulfillment of the stories of Moses (read Exodus 1-20). The parallels are too obvious to ignore; Herod is like the Egyptian pharaoh, Jesus’ baptism is like the crossing of the Red Sea, the forty days of testing are like the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the Sermon on the Mount is like the Law of Moses delivered on Mount Sinai.

I read this to a Christian friend who remarked, “That’s awesome!” when I finished. Meaning they were amazed that God would order the life of Jesus in that way to mirror Moses’ life.

My point (or agenda!) in reading it was to highlight the way the gospel writers use literary techniques to paint a picture of Jesus. In other words, it is not necessarily history. In other words, the bible is suspect as a source of reliable truth. And odd passages like the flight from Egypt are not found in other gospels. The writer is using it to make a point — Jesus is like the second Moses. Just the opposite of the way my friend interpreted the same passage.

The conservative Christian can look at the exact same details so differently, literally instead of symbolically reading the passage. Which is simple, it just presupposes the bible is real history in the case of both Moses and Jesus. Which to me is an absolutely amazing assumption to make.

Sure, it is a technically possible reading of the bible, but is it likely that that really happened? I say it certainly is not a likely accurate reading. To me it is as plain as day that the gospel of Matthew is painting a literary picture here. Especially in light of the fact (if I remember correctly) that the story of the flight from Egypt is unique to the gospel of Matthew. Attributing it to a literary device is to me a much more natural reading/understanding than believing that only Matthew (the eyewitness Matthew no less) recorded this remarkable magical series of events.

Perhaps nobody was too concerned at that time if it was actual history or not. But to me to believe firmly that it is real and literal, that we can (and must!) base our lives on this account of the second Moses, is intellectually untenable.

So where am I going with all this? Just to say that it is interesting that two people can look at the same thing very differently. And for me it is very hard to process and accept that in this case. It should not be hard to accept that someone thinks differently than I do, but it is when it seems demanded that I must believe a certain way by conservative Christians.

I think I must have believed it that way myself at one time, but my memory does not serve to inform me well. I probably did, or at least was willing to give it mental assent without fully believing in it. Either way, I didn’t or wouldn’t look at the bible critically. Maybe that is why it seems important to me now, trying to find ammunition against the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and literalism.

In reality to many Christians it just does not matter that much, as long as they have their faith, as long as they have Jesus, not even the gates of hell can stand against them. Most certainly not a plain reading of the biblical texts. Just like it didn’t matter to me.

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Entry filed under: bible.

doubt job and literalism

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Zoe  |  February 27, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    And before Moses, there was Cyrus king of Persia and before Cyrus, Sargon. It’s not likely that the Christian will be excited about those stories foreshadowing the story of Moses and later, Jesus.

    Sargon summary: [as taken in short form from the book, The Emperor’s New Clothes by Bill Johnston] (which I just happen to have at hand here.)

    – condemned to death at birth
    – mother put him in a basket and then the river to save his life
    – found in the river by the daughter of the royal family
    – raised there and later led the people to their freedom

    What of all these similarities? As a Christian, I had no idea of the historical myths that preceeded the Bible and it’s history. I had no idea of these stark parallels with times past. However, the people who passed these stories down throughout generations, did.

    Pointing out the similarities between Jesus and Moses often won’t work because Christians are taught all along that Moses is a foreshadowing. They are never taught about what came before Moses.

    Great post!

  • 2. atimetorend  |  February 27, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    That is a great point you make about Sargon. Very interesting to me in pondering what kind of evidence is helpful for a christian to be exposed to in order to challenge their way of thinking.I thought Moses would be good way to get a christian thinking about how to read the bible. Sargon is certainly more of a challenge to the conservative view of scripture.

    I am curious as to what the christian apologetics against Sargon would be. I am guessing it would have something to do with determining the date when the legend of Sargon arose, in comparison to when the man Moses supposedly actually lived.

  • 3. The Rambling Taoist  |  February 27, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    For me, the chief problem with reading any ancient text is that most contemporary readers don’t understand the context of the ancient writings. The bible makes use of mishrash which listeners or readers of the day understood was not to be taken as literal fact. Mishrash allows any story to take on multiple meanings and to be viewed more as an allegory.

    However, if you don’t understand the basis of mishrash, you will understand such stories in a completely different fashion. Since this story type is not prevalent in modern western society, contemporary readers take as literal fact what past readers took to be a folk tale or legend.

    Therein lies one of the main problems with modern Christianity.

  • 4. atimetorend  |  February 27, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Yes, very true. Learning about midrash was very much an “aha!” moment for me, it was revolutionary to my understanding of the bible, because all I had known was modern Christianity.

  • 5. Bethlin  |  February 28, 2009 at 2:05 am

    “It should not be hard to accept that someone thinks differently than I do, but it is when it seems demanded that I must believe a certain way by conservative Christians.”

    I find that it’s difficult to accept other people’s points of view especially extreme ones. But I’m discovering that a good argument and a little support can go a long way toward making peace with the “other.” Well, not making peace exactly — I guess I mean it helps to know why you’re against something so that you can remove the other’s powers of persuasion. If you know you’ll never agree with them, you take away their power. What you’re doing is really good, going through and creating your own reasons. Thanks for the post.

  • 6. atimetorend  |  February 28, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    bethlin, that is so true. I have spent almost a year of trying to learn (and agonizing) about the history of the bible, apologetics, logical thought,etc. And there have been so many times when I have been thankful to have the background to intelligently discuss things with believers. It can bring the conversations away from a “is not” “is too” argument to a place where a believer can be reasonably challenged.

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