–Isaiah 66:23 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
–Colossians 2:16-17 (NASB)
On the surface, these two passages of scripture seem to contradict each other, at least according to traditional Christian interpretation. I pulled them from yesterday’s review of The Promise of what is to Come series episode What Day is the Sabbath, produced by First Fruits of Zion. I published my review a day early (usually, my reviews of the show appear every Wednesday morning) because I wanted to build on a specific point and attempt to arrive at a personal conclusion.
For some time now, I’ve been trying to explore what I consider inconsistencies between the ancient Jewish scriptures, also known as the Tanakh or the Old Testament, and the later scriptural writings, also refered to commonly as the New Testament. If we’re supposed to have one, unified Bible that is all “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), that is, if everything we read from the first chapter of Genesis to the last words in Revelation all originate from the same source, from God, then everything in the Bible must be internally consistent and provide a single, cohesive revelation from God to humanity.
Human beings artificially divided the Bible into “Old” and “New Testaments,” not God, and we’ve applied many more divisions, filters, interpretations, and traditions to how these texts are now understood in “the Church.” But I have to remind myself that, like Judaism, Christianity isn’t a single, monolithic entity. There are many “Christianities,” just as there are many “Judaisms,” each with its own theology, set of doctrines, and sacred interpretations. Sure, there’s significant overlap. The fundamentals of the Christian faith should be shared by all valid Christianities, in spite of other differences, but the multiple ways different Christian streams understand what the Bible is saying are dizzying.
However, the problem I’m confronting now is more basic than just different denominational biases. I am attempting to resolve a more fundamental (sorry for employing that word so much) problem. Using the above-quoted scriptures, how are we to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the prophet Isaiah, who tells us that in the Messianic Age, all human beings will worship God on every Sabbath and every New Moon, and the apostle Paul, who says (apparently) that Sabbaths and New Moons are mere shadows of what is to come (presumably in the Messianic Age), and the substance (or meaning or fulfillment) is in Christ? It seems as if Paul is undoing what Isaiah prophesied.
We have some options:
- Both scriptures are correct but traditional Christian interpretation of Paul is flawed, leading the Church to come to a false conclusion. A new paradigm is required to understand Paul and Isaiah (and the entire Bible) within the same Judaic context.
- The Christian doctrine of progressive revelation allows for Paul to provide additional meaning to Isaiah’s prophesy, expanding upon our understanding of the earlier text.
- In Christ, the function of the Law was fulfilled at the cross, and thus later prophesies and holy scriptures replace or supersede earlier texts, with the later texts (on the right side of the cross) always “winning” in any apparent contradiction.
- The Tanakh or the Jewish holy scriptures were the only revelation of God given to man through the Jewish prophets. The later apostolic writings, and especially Paul, were a distortion of the teachings of Jesus and created a new, non-Jewish religion that was ultimately called Christianity.
- The Bible is broken and unreliable.
Let’s handle the easy items first and then proceed to the more challenging points.
Item 5 is what atheists would say. The Bible is a series of ancient tribal writings and can no more be considered as originating from a Divine supernatural being than any other “holy book” ever written in human history. Christianity and Judaism are fantasies and superstitions that have no place in the modern age.
Item 4 is what traditional observant Jews would say, including groups such as Jews for Judaism. A Jewish man named “Yeshua” or “Yeshu” may have lived in the late second Temple period and taught along with many other itinerant Rabbis, but if he thought he was the Messiah, his death proved he was not. The Tanakh is the extent of God’s revelation to mankind. The New Testament is a radical distortion of the teachings of Jesus, and Paul, in writing letters directly contradicting the Torah and the Prophets, was a liar, hypocrite, and a traitor to the Jewish people, to the Torah, and to God.
Item 3 is the most traditional, historical Christian interpretation. Jesus fulfilled the Law at the cross, and when he died, the Law died with him, along with any prophesies that contradict the later Gospels and Epistles. This is called supersessionism or replacement theology and it has been the bedrock for Christian interpretation of the Bible for nearly 2,000 years. Although the Christian Reformation may have changed a good many things, this foundational conceptualization and interpretation of scripture remained intact. Later events, and especially the Holocaust, have resulted in “the Church” softening its perception of Jews and Judaism to a much less anti-Semitic position, and many Christian denominations are now pro-Israel, but the fundamental Christian doctrine that the Law is dead continues unchanged.
Item 2 is something of a variation of item 3 but it has to be handled delicately. The idea is that, over the vast span of Biblical history, God continually revealed more and more about Himself and His plan to human beings. Abraham only knew so much about the plan of God. God revealed more to Moses. God revealed more to Isaiah. And God provided His ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the second part of the Trinity. Paul, as Christ’s special emissary to the Gentiles, was able to reveal, through the Spirit, even more than the previous prophets, thus adding much more meaning and dimension to the Biblical narrative of God’s plan as a whole. In this interpretation, the scripture from Isaiah 66:23 is incomplete and Paul added more to our understanding than Isaiah ever had access to.
That would work out fine except for one thing. Christianity still understands Paul as contradicting (apparently) Isaiah. No matter how you spin it, sooner or later, progressive revelation must believe that later revelations not only add meaning and dimension, but in cases where a later revelation seems to contradict an earlier one, the later revelation is always correct. In other words, the later revelation supersedes or replaces the earlier revelation, thus making items 2 and 3 close cousins if not sibling interpretive methods.
Periodically, I have been accused of being wishy-washy. I’ve always seen a life of faith as a journey of discovery. God places us on a path and sends us in a direction. We have a “map” of the territory ahead, but we all know that the map isn’t literally the territory. What we find on the trail should always provide unique details and experiences that make the journey necessary, otherwise, we could all just sit in the comfort of our homes, read the map, and know everything there is to know. There would be no need to study, pray, worship, or “wrestle” with God. The Bible would be a simple narrative, like reading a novel or even a children’s story. One or two passes through the book, and we know everything there is to know. God is reduced to a finite number of words on the printed page.
But that obviously isn’t true, otherwise we’d all agree about what the Bible says and there would be only one interpretation of the Word of God possessed by all human beings of faith.
In traveling the road of faith as I have, I occasionally manage to annoy some people or to frustrate them. Most other “religious bloggers” or “religious” people in general don’t think that a life of asking questions is sufficient. They want definite, concrete answers, and they want to hold onto them unswervingly, not exploring, not journeying, but always possessing the destination in the palm of their hands. They always want to be “right.”
And they want me to do all that, too.
Alright. If I’m to be pushed into a corner and you want a definite answer from me, here it is.
I believe in item 1. I believe the Bible is a single, unified document that represents God’s revelation to mankind, primarily through the Jewish prophets and apostles. I believe where ever we experience a fundamental contradiction in the Bible, such a contradiction does not actually exist. Using the television episode What Day is the Sabbath as my example, I believe that Biblical contradictions between how Christians and Jews understand the Sabbath are a result of incorrect interpretation based on anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish doctrine that was originally developed in the first several centuries of Church history and that hasn’t changed very much in almost two-thousand years. Such traditions have been so ingrained in Christian thinking among nearly all streams of the Christian faith, that it never even occurs to most kind, compassionate, intelligent, well-read, devoted believers, including many Pastors and New Testament scholars, to question those extremely ancient and I believe faulty assumptions.
They can’t possibly imagine that their interpretative traditions are wrong.
I’m not trying to sound like the old T.V. show The X-Files, but I believe the truth is out there. I believe that later Christian viewpoints such as The New Perspective on Paul have merit and are enabling believers to view the apostle in a different light, one where we can read him as not contradicting the earlier prophets or abandoning Judaism.
Movements such as Hebrew Roots among Christians and Messianic Judaism among Jewish believers, are embracing this paradigm shift and taking a fresh look at the Bible, especially the apostolic scriptures, peeling away hundreds of years of stale doctrine, and learning to see Paul as a Jew, as a Pharisee, and as a zealot for Torah, the Temple, the Messiah, and the God of Israel.
People want me to make a stand, so I announce my platform. I suppose it shouldn’t come as a total shock, but I’m tired of being considered noncommittal. You don’t have to like it and you don’t have to agree with me, but I believe a pro-Jewish view of Paul and a Judaic interpretive lens is the correct way to read the later, apostolic writings and to heal the divisions we have historically carved in our Bibles, especially “between the Testaments.”
Yesterday, I partly quoted Boaz Michael when I said:
He also said, and this is very important to me, that studying the Bible, all of it, from a Jewish cultural, national, historical, ethnic, and traditional perspective “makes our Bibles consistent and upholds the Biblical truth that God doesn’t change.”
God doesn’t change His mind. When He said the Sabbath was an eternal sign of His covenant with Israel, He wasn’t lying, and this wasn’t some sort of cosmic “bait and switch.” Refactoring our understanding of the Bible to accommodate a Judaic and pro-Jewish perspective on scripture is the only way to view the Bible as a single, unified revelation of God. There is no need to throw out “Biblical sufficiency.” The languages of the Bible still say what they say, and the Bible remains a record of God’s interaction with man and a guide to holy living. The only thing we must change is our tradition about how we interpret the Bible.
I choose not to adhere to a tradition of Biblical interpretation that, by definition and having long been established historically, must rewrite the Old Testament to fit the New Testament as understood by the Church. Christianity has found it necessary to invent man-made ways to retrofit the prophets to map to a Jesus who denies Judaism and an anti-Torah Paul. God’s “eternal covenant” can’t be “eternal” if the Church must interpret Paul as saying it’s temporary. The Church’s fundamental matrix for understanding the Bible is flawed because it denies the unchangability of God and even under the most benign and apparently pro-Israel perspective, must replace or at least significantly “spin” portions of the Messianic prophesies of the Tanakh in order to make sense of a non-Jewish Messiah who is not part of Judaism and does not uphold the primacy of his people Israel.
Nothing else makes sense. Christians can pepper me with this individual verse and that individual verse from New Testament writings, but in the end, the Bible isn’t just a list of verses we can “cherry pick” to fit an outmoded doctrine, it’s a single thing or unit made up of all of its elements, an “Echad.” If all the elements aren’t unified, then the Echad must disintegrate and collapse in upon itself. I don’t believe the Bible does that, so the problem lies elsewhere…with human beings.
It’s time to do this better before the bridegroom comes and finds our lamps are without oil.
Who am I? I’m a Gentile Christian who studies Messianic Judaism. I also go to church, and I’m trying to build bridges between the different members of the body of Messiah.