Tag Archives: progressive revelation

Standing on the Jewish Foundation of the Bible

ShabbatIt shall be that at every New Moon and on every Sabbath all mankind will come to prostrate themselves before Me, says Hashem.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. The Bible is broken and unreliable.

Let’s handle the easy items first and then proceed to the more challenging points.

tallit-prayerItem 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.

high-trail-hiking1And that brings us to item 1.

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.”

Torah at SinaiGod 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.

Did Canon Close for Christians and Jews?

Talmud Study by LamplightWhen we asked Major General Farkash why Israel’s military is so antihierarchical and open to questioning, he told us it was not just the military but Israel’s entire society and history. “Our religion is an open book,” he said, in a subtle European accent that traces back to his early years in Transylvania. The “open book” he was referring to was the Talmud — a dense recording of centuries of rabbinic debates over how to interpret the Bible and obey its laws — and the corresponding attitude of questioning is built into Jewish religion, as well as into the national ethos of Israel

As Israeli author Amos Oz has said, Judaism and Israel have always cultivated “a culture of doubt and argument, an open-ended game of interpretations, counter-interpretations, reinterpretations, opposing interpretations. From the very beginning of the existence of the Jewish civilization, it was recognized by its argumentativeness.

-Dan Senor and Saul Singer
“Chapter 2: Battlefield Entrepreneurs,” pg 51
Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

Less widely appreciated, though, is the paradox that in Judaism the canon remained fluid even as it became fixed. The word of God, unlike the language of humans, was deemed to bear an infinity of meanings with the result that canon spawned commentary. Of all literary genres, commentary is the least appealing to the modern temperament with its penchant for speed, novelty, and self-expression. Yet it is the key to Judaism’s singular achievement: a canon without closure. Revelation proved to be expansive rather than restrictive. The right, indeed the obligation, of every Jew is to plumb the Bible for meaning kept the text open, pliant, and relevant in a conversation that spanned the ages.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Introduction,” pp xv-xvi
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

This is probably one of the fundamental differences between Christianity and Judaism: the belief that it is “normal” to not agree about religion and what the Bible says. Add to this, the belief that Biblical canon is not immutably fixed across time and in fact, that interpretations of the Bible must change across time in order to remain relevant, and you have a tremendous barrier between Christianity and Judaism as religious entities.

Well, sort of.

I’m talking about the various branches of Judaism vs. fundamentalism in Christianity. If you shift to the other end of the spectrum, the view becomes different.

Simply put, the desire for an original source document is one that we’ll likely never overcome because we’ve been taught that a “source” must always exist. We assume that in order for the written word to be valid, it must be verifiable, because we were raised in the era of book reports and footnotes. The Bible, however, is a not a term paper written to appease a persnickety professor. Rather, the Bible is a written collection of generations-old, evolving oral stories as they existed at the time they were written down. Someone chose to record a tiny piece of the evolving oral tales in writing, capturing one solitary moment in the life of the story. Even in cases where the works were copied from other documents, it is probably not proper to wonder where the “source” document is, because the source was the spoken word.

From what I’ve gleaned in the essay written by Fowler and other writers, we erroneously believe that the preservation of God’s Word is the same as preserving each string of words. We also erroneously equate preserving God’s Word with preserving an interpretation of the Word. We spend a lot of time chopping scripture into sound bytes and mining tiny details of our stories, but this is not how ancient storytellers and hearers engaged these stories… We differ in approach because our high level of literacy has made us letter-focused, rather than spirit-focused, when a more faithful use of the text would be to focus on the power of story to bring people together.

-Crystal St. Marie Lewis
“Our Literary Bias: What it is and How it Affects our Perception of Scripture”

BibleStorytellingThe blog author is commenting on an essay written by Robert M. Fowler called “Why Everything We Know About the Bible is Wrong.” I’d love to be able to read this essay myself. I commented on Ms. St. Marie Lewis’s blog asking for the source and she was gracious enough to supply the relevant link.

According to her brief bio, Ms. St. Marie Lewis says that she “writes from the perspective of a progressive Christian about religion and how it relates to the world around us,” which should tell you that she’s unlikely to reflect a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint. However, it’s her progressive perspective that is more likely to fold into, at least to some degree, the Jewish idea that canon is not rigidly fixed.

The church I attend is Baptist and generally supports a dispensationalist point of view:

Dispensationalism is an evangelical, futurist, Biblical interpretation that understands God to have related to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants in a series of “dispensations,” or periods in history.

One of the most important underlying theological concepts for dispensationalism is progressive revelation. While some non-dispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore there is an emphasis on a gradually developed unity as seen in the entirety of Scripture. Biblical covenants are intricately tied to the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Also with regard to the different Biblical covenant promises, dispensationalism emphasises to whom these promises were written, the original recipients. This has led to certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the Church.

History_of_Dispensationalism_Darby_IIIDispensationalist don’t see themselves as reinterpreting the Bible from a human standpoint to adjust to the requirements of different generations, but nevertheless, they do take the text and view it as becoming more densely packed with information as it progresses from past to future, making “the Church” the ultimate receiver of the highest and most “evolved” revelations of God, somewhat in contradiction to the level of intimacy that someone like Moses would have experienced at having spoken with God “face to face” (the level of intimacy implied here is that of a husband and wife) as it were.

If dispensationalists believe that God progressively revealed Himself up to the end of the Biblical period and then stopped, that’s one thing, but what if they believe that God’s progressive revelation progressed after the end of the Biblical canon and for many centuries to follow?

John Nelson Darby is recognized as the father of dispensationalism,[1]:10, 293 later made popular in the United States by Cyrus Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible. Charles Henry Mackintosh, 1820–96, with his popular style spread Darby’s teachings to humbler elements in society and may be regarded as the journalist of the Brethren Movement. Mackintosh popularized Darby more than any other Brethren author.

As there was no Christian teaching of a “rapture” before Darby began preaching about it in the 1830s, he is sometimes credited with originating the “secret rapture” theory wherein Christ will suddenly remove his bride, the Church, from this world before the judgments of the tribulation. Dispensationalist beliefs about the fate of the Jews and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel put dispensationalists at the forefront of Christian Zionism, because “God is able to graft them in again”, and they believe that in his grace he will do so according to their understanding of Old Testament prophecy. They believe that, while the methodologies of God may change, his purposes to bless Israel will never be forgotten, just as he has shown unmerited favour to the Church, he will do so to a remnant of Israel to fulfill all the promises made to the genetic seed of Abraham.

Um…whoa! As it says at Wikipedia, it seems as if progressive revelation continued to progress well past the Biblical period and into modern times. How else do you get doctrines such as progressive revelation, the rapture, and Calvinism that didn’t exist in Biblical times and were created closer to the 21st century than to the 1st century? Why did God “reveal” these concepts to Christians so much later in history (and after the Christian Biblical canon was theoretically closed) and how does all this compare to the basic viewpoint of Rabbinic Judaism?

The feature that distinguishes Rabbinic Judaism is the belief in the Oral Law or Oral Torah. The authority for that position has been the tradition taught by the Rabbis that the oral law was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Law and that the Oral Law has been transmitted from generation to generation since. The Talmud is said to be a codification of the Oral Law, and is thereby just as binding as the Torah itself. To demonstrate this position some point to the Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 of the Bible are cited to show that Moses appointed elders to govern with him and to judge disputes, imparting to them details and guidance of how to interpret the revelations from God while carrying out their duties. Additionally, all the laws in the Written Torah are recorded only as part of a narrative describing God telling these law to Moses and commanding him to transmit them orally to the Jewish nation. None of the laws in the Written Law are presented as instructions to the reader.

The oral law was subsequently codified in the Mishnah and Gemara, and is interpreted in Rabbinic literature detailing subsequent rabbinic decisions and writings. Rabbinic Jewish literature is predicated on the belief that the Torah cannot be properly understood without recourse to the Oral Law. Indeed, it states that many commandments and stipulations contained in the Torah would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep without the Oral Law to define them — for example, the prohibition to do any “creative work” (“melakha”) on the Sabbath, which is given no definition in the Torah, and only given practical meaning by the definition of what constitutes ‘Melacha’ provided by the Oral Law and passed down orally through the ages. Numerous examples exist of this general prohibitive language in the Torah (such as, “don’t steal”, without defining what is considered theft, or ownership and property laws), requiring — according to Rabbinic thought — a subsequent crystallization and definition through the Oral Law. Thus Rabbinic Judaism claims that almost all directives, both positive and negative, in the Torah are non-specific in nature and would therefore require the existence of either an Oral Law tradition to explain them, or some other method of defining their detail.

bible_read_meI know that Christian progressive revelation in the post-Biblical period and the development of Rabbinic Judaism in the post-Second Temple period don’t seem particularly related, but look at the core of what they both accomplish. They both state that the various authorities in each of these religions take the Bible as the base source material and interpret it (either via the Holy Spirit in Christian understanding or under the authority God gave the Rabbinic sages) across time in order to meet the requirements of each generation. Although Christianity likes to believe it has closed the canon at the end of the book of Revelation, the fact that many doctrines have been created in post-Biblical times that would have been alien to Jesus, Peter, and Paul attest to the opposite.

Judaism, if anything, is more upfront with what it has been doing. The Bible may be a fixed document, but it’s how we interpret it at any given point in history that gives it a lived meaning in the Christian and Jewish worlds. Are any of us truly living “Biblical lives” or are we actually living “Doctrinal lives” as interpreted by our different denominations, sects, and movements?