Discussion: The Red Letters: What do we do when the Jesus contradicts (or appears to contradict) the Old Testament?

One of the newest, loudest, and legitimate accusations against both the emerging church and narrative theology movements is that these groups place so much emphasis on Jesus' words that they allows “the red letters” to eclipse all other scripture. (“Red letter” refer to the words of Christ, which are printed in red in many bibles).

The criticism goes on to say that we shouldn't trivialize God's word this way as every word in bible – words from Mary, Jesus, Moses, or Jeremiah's mouth – all of these are equal as they are all God-breathed by being included in the Bible. But let's not deal with this second part yet, let's linger with the accusation for a moment before we try to deal with their solution.

As a movement, I think we can safely say that their criticism – although not necessarily their solution – is correct: many of those involved in the narrative theology, narrative criticism, "new evangelical," and emerging (or emergent) church movements do indeed value Jesus' word higher than other scriptures in their hermeneutic.

Scott McKnight, religious studies professor at North Park College, argues in his book “The Blue Parakeet” that everyone picks and chooses; everyone ignores the scriptures that don't reflect their beliefs.

McKnight reinforces this concept by showing that even those who make these accusations still don't keep all the scriptures. Even the most conservative churches, for example, don't stone blasphemers (Leviticus 24:23), burn adulterers (Leviticus 21:9), or avoid clothing made from two types of fabrics (Leviticus 19).

McKnight finishes this thought by saying (in, albeit, more easily accessible language): “Everyone's hermeneutic values some scripture over others,” and then moves on to illustrate this by showing how different groups apply their different valuations to the issue of women rights. Of course, as any child can tell you, “everyone is doing it” is not often seen as a valid excuse, McKnight does a great job of introducing the casual reader to the problem, but the discussing potential solution is beyond the scope of his work (admittedly).

On December 1st, at a Cuban Restaurant in Hollywood, Florida, a few ministers, theologians, and writers are going to think, question, and debate the very difficult problem at heart of these hermeneutical valuations and try to give words to that solution. What do we do when God contradicts – or at least, appears to change his mind?

When we meet in person to discuss, pray, and try to think deeply about the hermeneutics and semiotics of scripture on December 1st, someone will order pork. Normally, none of us would think twice about this, but the level of comfort of which we order a Cuban sandwich (which is composed of ham) shall become a large part of our discussion.

Ham is the perfect example of this issue; and when the conversation diverges into a debate of current political or theological issues, as will necessarily occur from discussing this type of topic among thoughtful people of many perspectives, we will always go back to pork. Despite our many differences, nearly all Christians agree that in the Hebrew Tanahk, ham is prohibited; in the New, it is allowed. This leads to the important question, why base your life around a book, and a God, that seems to correct an earlier scripture? How can we think of this book as authoritative? If a prohibition like Kosher can be made historically or culturally sensitive, how can we not make that same argument about any command or prohibition? How do we find our footing on this slippery slope? If pork is relative, doesn't it necessarily follow that everything is?

This is certainly not the only time that the New will express something very different than the Tanahk. Jesus, Peter, and Paul often completely disagree with, disregard, or so thoroughly build upon or tighten a concept or precept of the Tanahk that anyone who can step outside of their time period, must ask, "Why didn't you just say that in the first place?"

The entire sermon on the mount, and especially the examples (and even the shocking and confrontational phrasing) of Jesus' teachings on "higher righteousness," must be juxtaposed with the "lower" (by comparison) Mosaic law. Scholars refer to this section of the sermon on the mount as the Antitheses or the antitheses statements: they follow the same formulaic refrain: Jesus says "you have heard it said," and then quotes a portion of the Mosaic Law, and then follows that with "but I say unto you" and then says something very different.

In one of the most obvious examples, Matthew 5:38–39, Jesus says: "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

When Jesus says "You have heard it said 'An eye for an eye'" he references Leviticus 24:19–23. "Anyone who injures another person must be dealt with according to the injury inflicted-- fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Whatever anyone does to hurt another person must be paid back in kind. 'Whoever kills an animal must make full restitution, but whoever kills another person must be put to death. 'These same regulations apply to Israelites by birth and foreigners who live among you. I, the LORD, am your God.' After Moses gave all these instructions to the Israelites, they led the blasphemer outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the LORD had commanded Moses." If the antitheses are named correctly and are indeed opposing something, it can only be the Mosaic law.

Jesus declares that his teachings on marriage and divorce should replace Moses' version (Matt 5:27-33; Mark 10:1-12) which is a way of saying that his views on the topic replace the ones found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. When Jesus says "love you enemies," "do good to those who hate you," or "Do not resist evil," (the word often translated "resist" is a technical term for military or paramilitary armed resistance), these sayings must be seen as deeply conflicting with the Canaanite conquest of which God, himself, commanded the Jews to engage.

When Jesus refuses to stone the adulteress (John 8:1-11), it must be compared to Leviticus 24:23 commanding the people of God to do this very thing. When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, he faults the priest and Levite for not helping the injured Israeli but to do so would have caused them to break Numbers 6:5-12. When Jesus heals the invalid on the Sabbath (John 5:1-12), he tells the man to pick up his mat and go home. This was, and must still be seen as, a flagrant demonstrative act against the prohibition of working on the Sabbath. Being as the man is no longer an invalid, he no longer needs his mat so Jesus has no reason to tell the man to take it with him other than to force a rethinking of that command.

This problem extends beyond Jesus, as Paul declaration that eating meat sacrificed to idol can be allowed, whereas Revelations faults one of the churches for eating meat sacrificed to idols, but one has to limit the discussion somewhere, so I will limit ours to Jesus, himself.


Interlude: As Christians, we do not often delve much into what we call the Old Testament (and the Jews call the Tanakh), so these conflicts sometimes go unnoticed. When our attention is finally drawn to these difference, we often try to minimize the conflict by saying things like "God cannot contradict himself," but the Old Testament is full of these types of stories, God often acts one way and then either inexplicably acts another way.

God is said to have promised that the house of Eli would be into Him a linage of ministers forever, but when they use their religious power to steal from the temple's storehouse for the poor, God revokes his promise and "regrets" his earlier decision. God says that he "repented" of his decision to make Saul king. The entire book of Jonah deals with the issue of God changing his mind, but in a more positive sense. Jonah is sent to tell the people of Nineveh that they will be destroyed for their wickedness, yet when Nineveh unexpectedly and uncharacteristically repents, God states that he has changed his mind and that he will not destroy them. When God speaks to Elijah, he does so in a way designed to show that He is no longer acting the same way He did when He spoke with Moses.

A second strategy to distance the conflict is for Christians to paint Jews as legalists who added to God's commands so that the conflict is not between God and God but between the Jews and God. The motivations for this can be as benign as historical or biblical ignorance or as ugly as antisemitism, but nonetheless this view must be rejected as hopelessly naive and as a dangerous mischaracterization of Jewish belief. If God did indeed speak through Moses, the Jews did not turn God's command to "honor the sabbath" into legalism; Exodus 35:3 gives us but one example of how serious God was about the prohibition against work: something as insignificant as building a fire on the Sabbath would be a capital crime, declares the Lord. If stacking sticks to make a fire is worthy of death, certainly so is carrying one's bed. There are many, many more examples of work that was not allowed on the Sabbath written about throughout the scriptures; it cannot be argued that the Jews came up with their Sabbatical regulations out of the blue. Furthermore, the argument over whether Jesus has this man break the Sabbath or just redefines the Sabbatical law, is semantics, nothing more. If Jesus breaks it, he does so to redefine it; if he redefines it, he does so by breaking it.

Lastly and most importantly, Christians miss these conflicts because we do not truly engage with Tanakh even when we do read it; we often wield the Old Testament as if it were nothing more than proof texts on the prophecies about Christ. Although some of this is valid -- the Tanakh does present many, many prophecies about the coming messiah -- it is imperative that we not read too much hindsight into these prophecies. Yes, a messiah was foretold, but that the messiah would act like Jesus, have the political message that Jesus proclaimed, and especially that the messiah be God himself were all dramatically unanticipated events for which there were no prophesies. Looking for proof that this was the plan all along is a misguided effort for those who wish to have the story of the bible simply be "creation, fall, redemption, return" and requires that one edit Israel, her history, her local and national issues, and her longing for a political messiah to end the exile and militarily vindicate them in front of their enemies out of the biblical narrative. The Jews were looking for a political messiah who would forgive their sins (which is but another way of saying "end the exile") and lead them to national greatness precisely because this is what was foretold.

Furthermore, this lack of engagement with the Tanahk resulting from our "from the back forward" style of reading removes all that is beautiful about the story by eliminating it's suspense, intrigue, and beauty. The bible cannot make sense unless Jesus is reclaimed as the great plot twist in Gods biography. If we are to believe that Jesus was messiah at all, we must do so, not by claiming that this version of messiahship had been prophesied all along, but by accepting Jesus' very redefinition of the term. Jesus wins the great battle against Israel's enemies not by defeating her political foes but by defeating the satan who, not Rome, is the real enemy, and he wins this battle with Israel's new foe not by the prophesied military force but by loving the Romans and even suffering defeat at their hands. From all points of view, as he dies screaming at God, his redefinition, his proclamation, and his programme appears to be in the wrong. Yet, the resurrection proves otherwise. This reversal of the mode of messianic, political, and spiritual deliverance is the very heart of Christianity.

This all leads to a point of caution. Many of the things of which we associate as claims of divinity, such as the term "messiah," Jesus' healings, and his miraculous birth would not have communicated divinity to a first century Jew. (For more on what these terms and actions would meant before Jesus see the second interlude in my commentary on The Temptation of Jesus.) If we do not allow Jesus to correct the books of Moses, we have no reason to say that He, Himself, (and not a later addition by the early church) claimed that He was divine. Jesus' statements of being greater than Moses and Abraham, which are answers to the acusations that he is opposing, changing, or amending these patriarchs, can only makes sense if both he actually believes himself to be doing so. To deny that Jesus does so is to remove one leg from the histoircal chair on which our belief of the divinity of Christ sits.

It must be stated that Jesus does, indeed, agree with the entirety of the Tanahk; this is what he means by his saying that he has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Again, this statement makes no sense if he has not been accused of attempting to abolish it -- or at least some parts of it -- in the first place. It must be stated that Jesus both embraces and fulfills the whole of the Tanahk and yet simultaneously opposes segments of the Hebrew scriptures, such as the examples (and there are many more) presented above. This difference is best explained by analogy: if the Tanakh was a song, Jesus has transcribed it. The melody is the same, but some of the notes have been altered. When the teachers of the law have become upset that some individual keys are being changed, Jesus response is not a denial of problem at the heart of their charge, but rather that they should listen, again, to the entirety of the song.

With this groundwork laid, we now come to the discussive elements of our discussion. (!)

Questions of Hermeneutics and Semiotics

Note for internet readers: this piece is meant to facilitate a discussion. I will try to present the different ways that Christians (and even some atheists) deal with this problem. After this point, I will try to not voice my own opinion in this piece, but instead try to catalogue the many points of view that already exist.

What do we do when Jesus words are in conflict with the rest of the bible? Which way should we approach the scriptures?

A. Should we even value the words of Jesus more than the Tanakh?
1. Do we value the words of Jesus more than the black letters because it is Jesus or because it is "second"?
2. If we think that we don't have to obey Kosher because it is “no longer necessary?” Isn't this a slippery slope? Who's to say what is "no longer necessary?"

B. What does "All scripture is God-breathed" even mean?
1. Consider that that a nearly identical phase in Hebrew, as this one in Greek, was said of how Adam and Eve were given life, how does this change our definition of these verses in Timothy?
2. Doesn't it by nature of when it was written (and the verse before it, 3:15) only be able to refer to the Tanahk / some of the earliest forms of the gospels?
3. What is inspiration, anyways?

C. Are all the books in the bible inspired the same way? Are all voices? What about when the bible quotes false prophets? other characters? the satan?

D. When scholars and theologians can't deny the conflict, they have come up with different theories of how to deal with the conflicts. Below are some of the theories. We will spend the majority of our time in the discussion here.

1. Non Newtonian solids 

This theory, popularized by Doug Paggit of Solomon's porch, states that paradoxes are part of the way of understanding truth. We think we have found paradoxes because we simply don't understand the truth yet. We had been taught that everything in physics is either a wave or a particle, yet quantum mechanics has show that light is actually both -- even though we all know this is impossible. Similarly (and much easier to demonstrate), we all think we know that things are either solids, liquids, or gasses, yet a non-Newtonian solid is a object that is simultaneously both a solid and a liquid.

Watch the videos below for a demonstration of an NNS.

Even more interesting (and with better music) here's what sound waves can do to a NNS:

The Non-Newtonian solid theory states that two things that we think are mutually exclusive may not be mutually exclusive. This type of reasoning is often used when talking about election and free will.

Criticism: yes, we can demonstrate that things we once thought were mutually exclusive in physics are not. Other than making a good analogy, what reason do we have to think that anything in the bible is like this?

2. A schizophrenic God

This theory, often used by the New Atheists, states that if God exists he must schizophrenic, because of these contradictions.

3. An uninspired personal injection by the writer or editors

Based upon a reading of 1 Corinthians 7:25 ("Now, about the young women who are not yet married. I do not have a command from the Lord for them. But the Lord in his kindness has given me wisdom that can be trusted, and I will share it with you."), this theory states that one of these conflicting scriptures has been added by the writers or editors of the bible and reveals, not something about God, but something about the culture of the time.

This type of reasoning is used the type of historical criticism used in The Jesus Seminar.

Criticisms: how do we know when something is a post-biblical injection? Isn't this subjective? Can't I call anything a personal injection?

4. An unfolding of a scroll

I believe Ray Vander Laan is the first to have "rediscovered" this data, but this has become the basic building block that is the foundation for Narrative theology, Narrative criticism, the "new evangelicals" and the emergent/emerging movements. This theory states that ancient Jews, like many easterners, thought of truth as not being something that is static, but something that unfolds over time, very much like the way that one unrolls a scroll.

Although this video has nothing to do with theory, the first few seconds might help make this point visually: imagine that the left side of the table is creation and the right side of the table is eternity. As time progresses, more and more of God's plan is made visible, and thus each new page redefines the story as a whole.

Often times this theory is also combined with theory 6s.

Criticisms: isn't this the idea of progress (or even evolution) just being applied to God? Isn't it rather culturally biased to say that we have it right since earlier people had it wrong? Doesn't this leave everyone before the canonization in the lurch? Is something newer always better? How do we know that the scroll is finished unfolding? Can we rule out that more is coming?

6. The differences are culturally or situation specific.

This theory states that the differences is not with God, but with us. Mankind and culture should have different rules in different time periods. For example, pork can be extremely hazardous when not refrigerated; in a culture without a way to keep meat a current temperature, commanding people to not eat pork would save many lives. This theory is sometimes also rephrased by the statement that "God meets us where we are."

This type of argument is used in several places in our society and is often referred to as "situational ethics." For example, it is used in just war theory, which states that Jesus, is not against all wars, just a specific occasion of war when he tells us to love our enemies (this turn of the century war with the Romans). Some wars are justified based upon their situation, the theory states. This type of reasoning is also heavily used by those who believe that sex before marriage should be allowed since those who want to get married are no longer doing so until much later in life (no longer having arraigned marriages) and by those who say that modern day homosexuality (especially homosexual marriage relationships) should be allowed because that is very different that ancient homosexuality (where, again, as everyone was married before they had a chance to determine their sexuality, men would be leaving wives and children to pursue extra-marital homosexual relations). The morally wrong part, these voices argue, is the leaving wives and children without a provider, not homosexuality itself.

Criticism: Our context is so different from the bible as to make a cultural translation difficult in the first place, couldn't we then just argue our way out of anything? If we can say that the context is different so therefore God wants us to do something different, aren't we just re-writing the story? If we are, are we supposed to? If we aren't, what are we doing?

6. Something else?

This is where I will later add other theories that members of the group bring up.

I will try to add the conclusions here as well.