The Importance of Israel

the_inspiration_of_saint_matthew_by_caravaggioMatthew anchors the story of Jesus in Israel’s history. If we are unfamiliar with the Old Testament Scriptures and this history, we will miss important parts of the message. This is especially true in the prelude to Jesus’ public ministry in chapters 1-4. Richard Hays (Reading Backwards and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels) explores these connections.

Matthew encourages the reader to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament precursors, particularly Moses, David, and Isaiah’s Servant figure. … Matthew’s language and imagery are from start to finish soaked in Scripture; He constantly presupposes the social and symbolic world rendered by the stories, songs, prophecies, laws, and wisdom teachings of Israel’s sacred texts. (p. 109)

Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scripture, he is the Messiah and he enacts Israel’s destiny the way it was intended. In the opening section there are at least seven passages where Matthew makes a direct statement or allusion to Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scripture.The fulfillment passages sometimes seem a reach, with 2:15 “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” a good example. This quote is found in Hosea 11:1, which is decidedly not a messianic prophecy. This passage, and the rather simplistic assertions sometimes made about it in sermons and Christian literature, has long troubled me. It shouldn’t though. In order to understand Matthew’s point in including this citation, and others as well, we need to dig deeper than some index of prooftexts and look to the context of the passages.

Jesus enacts Israel’s destiny. In this post we will look at four specific passages: the flight to Egypt (2:13-15), Herod’s murder of the innocents (2:16-18), the baptism of Jesus by John (3:13-15), and the temptation (4:1-11). In all of these passages there is, according to Hays, “a typological identification of Jesus with Israel: Jesus becomes the one in whom the fate of Israel is embodied and enacted.” (p. 113)

(1) Out of Egypt I called my Son. 2:13-15 Hosea 11 starts with the identification of Israel as God’s son. This is a tradition that can be traced to Moses and the exodus. God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh that “Israel is my firstborn son.” (Ex 4:22) But we should see in Matthew’s formula “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet” not simply the bald misappropriation of Hosea 11:1, but a resonance with the context of Hosea 11 and with God’s love for and rescue of his people, Israel.

Matthew transfigures Hosea’s text by seeing how it prefigures an event in the life of Jesus. Matthew now sees the fate of God’s “son” Israel recapitulated in the story of God’s Son, Jesus: In both cases, the son is brought out of exile in Egypt and back into the land.

… Matthew cannot be unaware of the original contextual meaning of Hosea 11:1 as an expression of God’s love for Israel, a love that persists even through Israel’s subsequent unfaithfulness (Hos 11:8-9). Indeed, Matthew’s use of the quotation depends upon the reader’s recognition of its original sense: if Hosea’s words were severed from their reference to the original exodus story, the literary and theological effect of Matthew’s reading would be stifled. The fulfillment of the prophet’s words can be discerned only through an act of imagination that perceives the figural correspondence between the two stories of the exodus and the gospel. … the story of Jesus acquires the resonance of the story of Israel. (p. 113-114)

Matthew’s use of the quotation also names Jesus as God’s Son. This is not independent from, but part and parcel of the figural connection between Jesus and Israel.

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A Matter of Interpretation

IMG_2919dsIn his recent book Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues, Jim Stump has a nice discussion of the role of interpretation in our approach to the Bible. Sola Scriptura is a foundation stone of the Reformation. Luther insisted on this in his dispute with the Catholic Church. If the church is corrupt and self-serving, as Luther and the other reformers believed (and there is certainly evidence to back up the claim at least in part) there has to be some other reliable foundation for understanding Christian faith. This foundation is found in the Bible. Stump focuses on the major problem with this approach: “But then this doctrine which began as a unifying cry against the institution very quickly became ground for endless divisions. Luther’s reading of Scripture was questioned by Zwingli and Calvin; theirs was questioned by the Anabaptists. And so on.” (p. 57) The interpretation of Scripture is not always obvious. In this post I will consider a few of the points brought up in the book.

First, the data are sparse. The data in science or theology, “almost always underdetermines the theories that explain it.” In science theories are put to the test whenever new data rolls in. Of course, this doesn’t prevent enthusiasts from trying to squeeze the data into a favored mold … at least until the difference is overwhelming. The same can be true in theology as well. Jim has a nice example of four data points that can be fit to a circle, a diamond, or any of an infinite number of other shapes. I’ll adapt his illustration – but modify it a little.

shapesIf two new data points are added there is a decision to make – one that depends on the way in which we interpret the data.

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Our Best Argument

Celtic Cross Crop2The final chapter of Tim Keller’s new book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical turns to what Keller finds is the best argument for Christian faith. Bottom line: it is Jesus. He starts the chapter acknowledging that the previous chapter (see Is it Reasonable?), and for that matter much of the material in the book, provides a convincing argument that it is reasonable to doubt the scientific materialism and secular humanism that governs much of Western culture these days. But this alone isn’t enough to bring anyone to Christ. Why should we find the Christian faith convincing? In Keller’s view our best argument is the person of Jesus Christ – his life, his teachings, and his resurrection. While Christianity appears to be shrinking in the West, it is growing globally with its center in the message of Jesus.

Why might this be? What is considered by many in the West (at least in academia) to be a symbol of Western imperialism is being embraced around the globe. Keller makes an important observation (following Richard Bauckham) .

Even when Jesus has been used to legitimate oppression, as in the nineteenth-century American South, the African slaves themselves found their inspiration and power in Jesus to resist their domination. Even though during the early-modern period Christianity was tied too closely to European and American colonialism and empire, today most of the most vital and largest Christian populations are now nonwhite, non-Western. No matter how many efforts have been made to capture and deploy Jesus for imperialistic ends, he has always escaped them. (p. 229)

The church can, at times, be usurped and manipulated as a tool for power. But this is contrary to the gospel and to the teachings of Christ – as many Christians have realized.

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It’s in Art

emergence-of-personhoodThe second essay in The Emergence of Personhood, A Quantum Leap? was written by Ian Tattersall, Curator Emeritus, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History. In his essay Tattersall digs more deeply into what it means to be human from the perspective of evolutionary biology. He agrees with Richard Byrne (see The Dividing Line) that capacity for language is an important factor, but capacity for language is only one piece of a larger picture – an active sense of self and capacity for symbolic thought. Uniquely human personhood, in Tattersall’s view implies “an active sense of self” with an internal sense of self and the ability to relate this to an external world of others like us, other humans.

Personhood in the sense that I am implying here most likely derives from the highly distinctive ability of members of Homo sapiens to think in a symbolic manner (see discussion and references in Tattersall 2012 Masters of the Planet). We have the cognitive ability to break down our internal and external worlds into a huge vocabulary of discrete symbols that we can shuffle, according to mental algorithms, to create novel combinations. Such rearrangements add up to our unique capacity to envision previously unimagined and unobserved possibilities, and to form new interpretations of the world around us. (p. 38)

A couple of important points. (1) This discussion of personhood is a feature of our species as a species. It does not follow that disabilities, diseases, or developmental stage in an individual makes them “less human.” (2) The capacity for language isn’t just an ability to communicate direction based on instinctual gestures – it goes far deeper than this. Language itself is a learned means of abstract symbolic thought and communication. Tattersall argues that our sense of “individual personhood is at least as much a story we tell ourselves about ourselves” as it is a set of responses we share with chimpanzees. This makes humans qualitatively different from other living inhabitants of earth.

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The Embodiment of Israel’s God?

hayssRichard Hays explores the ways in which the Gospel writers draw the Old Testament to narrate the identity of Jesus. In Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness he focuses on Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God. In Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels he goes beyond this to look at other aspects of the identity of Jesus, as well as the re-narration of Israel’s story in light of Jesus and the role of the church (the gathering of Christ-followers) in the world. I am currently leading an adult education class at church based primarily on these books, especially Reading Backwards. This is an important topic for the church, especially in an academic community such as the one surrounding our church.

Jesus as The God of Israel? The first post How to Read the Bible focused on two passages in Mark involving Jesus commanding the wind and waves (4:35-41), and later walking on water (6:45-51). In the way both of these passages are presented by Mark we can see echoes of the Old Testament portrayal of God, Jesus does things that God does in Psalm 107 and Job 9. There are five other passages in Mark that Hays identifies as drawing on Scripture to portray Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God.

(1) The one for whom the way is prepared. Mark begins his Gospel (1:1-3):

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

The opening, calling Jesus the anointed one, is an echo of the Davidic kingship (Psalm 2) . The second title “Son of God” may be a later addition rather than original, but it is consistent with other passages in Mark (eg. 1:11 and 9:7) and is also most likely an echo of Jesus as the promised Davidic king. On the other hand, the quote from Isaiah clearly refers to the Lord himself, not his anointed one (40:3). The NIV has:

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

Although Mark does not use the explicit quote, “him” in the last line clearly refers back to the Lord (kyrios) in the preceding line.

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Is it Reasonable?

making-sense-of-godThus far Tim Keller’s book Making Sense of God : An Invitation to the Skeptical has looked at six aspects of human life, givens that Keller suggests we cannot live without: meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, hope, and justice. Each chapter looked at both secular and Christian narratives, and at the specific focus that Christianity offers. In the last two chapters he turns to a broader overview. He begins by asking “is it reasonable to believe in God?” and offers six specific reasons the answer is yes. Before digging into the list, however, it is important to set the stage. God (if there is a god) is not a creature or object contained within the material universe. “[Religions] understand God rather as Being itself, the ground and condition for all other things to exist. All things that have being depend on God moment by moment for it. Without God nothing would exist at all.” (p. 217) This has important consequences for the way we should look for evidence of God. Keller quotes C. Stephen Evans “To believe in God is to believe the universe has a certain character; to disbelieve in God is to believe the universe lacks that character and has a very different character.” (Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense, p. 22) Arguments for the existence of God are best shaped by the nature of the world we experience.

I will list the arguments using the titles used by Keller.

Cosmic Wonder. One argument for the existence of God is found in the very existence of the universe. This is essentially a first cause argument. All natural things have a cause. Science studies these causes with increasing precision. For the material universe studied through science to exist there must be some cause accounting for its very existence. A place where the chain of events begins. “This means that there must be some unique being that exists without cause, that did not spring out of nothing, that is its own cause and the source of everything.” (p. 218) The cosmic wonder we experience in a universe that exists and seems to have sense and purpose is, perhaps, “a compelling sign of God’s reality.”

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Science is Incidental

lamoureux-coverChapter 5 of Denis Lamoureux’s new book Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes looks at the way that “science” is presented in Scripture. Science is a modern concept, but Scripture certainly speaks about the nature of the cosmos and uses language that assumes a view of astronomy, geography, and biology. But the Bible is not a science book. It doesn’t teach new science, rather it reflects the typical views concerning astronomy, geography, and biology commonly held in the ancient Near East. These views are phenomenological – the result of observation by unaided physical senses. In contrast modern science often goes beyond this using instruments and theories to describe the cosmos. Denis argues that the scientific concepts are incidental to the message of Scripture. He explains this carefully:

The ancient science in Scripture is incidental because God’s central purpose in the Bible is to reveal messages of faith and not scientific facts about his creation. Using the term “incidental” does not mean that ancient science is unimportant. The ancient science in Scripture is essential for transporting spiritual truths. It acts like a cup that holds water. Whether the cup is made of glass, plastic, or metal is incidental. What matters is that a vessel is needed to bring water to a thirsty person. The word “incidental” has the meaning of “happening in connection with something more important.” Thus, the incidental ancient science in Scripture is a necessary vessel that delivers important spiritual messages to our thirsty souls. (p. 90)

It was necessary to use language to describe the shape and form of creation in order to convey the message that God alone is the creator, that his creation is good, and that there is no other deity involved, e.g. the sun, moon, and stars are merely created objects. The language and concepts used are, quite appropriately, those common place to the original ancient Israelite audience or the first century Jewish audience.

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