Monday, January 6, 2014

The New Testament (in 48 hours)

This is the final entry in a series of posts on Reading the Whole Bible

I'll meet you at the Alamo mission
And we will say our prayers.
The Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mother
Will heal us, as we kneel there,
In the midnight moonlight,
Midnight moonlight, moonlight,
In the midnight, moonlight,
In the midnight moonlight, midnight.
—"Midnight Moonlight," The Be Good Tanyas

How It All Went Down:

At long last, I've come to the end of this project. As I mentioned in an entry this summer, I'd initially thought it would take me about three months to read my Bible, given that there were only 2000 pages or so, and with a good novel I can do 2000 pages in a couple of weeks. 2000 pages of Bible, I reasoned, shouldn't take much more than that. I ended up making quick progress until I hit the ~600 pages of poetry in the middle, which were so different and hard to plow through that I ended up taking a whole month off just to enjoy reading other things; I read much more slowly once I returned to them.

Perhaps surprisingly, I was expecting the same problem with the New Testament.

The New Testament is not my favorite part of the Bible; that designation is reserved for the beautiful narratives of the Hebrew Bible, especially 1 and 2 Samuel. Biblical narrative is what I crave; thankfully, there are five narrative books stacked right at the beginning of the NT: the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) which depict the life of Jesus from slightly different angles, and Acts, which describes the beginnings of the Christian church as it spread from Israel into the Roman Empire. While these books sometimes don't quite measure up to the sheer narrative artistry and literary pleasures of the Hebrew Bible's greatest moments, they are all still wonderful to read, and examining them in detail with commentary was something I looked forward to. These books were not my problem.

My problem with the New Testament has always been the second half, which consists almost entirely of epistles (a word which I was not able to distinguish from "apostles" until I was almost an adult) or letters. These letters were often sent from a church leader to a specific church in another city, but sometimes to a specific individual or a more general audience, the early Christians as a whole. These books, in other words, do not tell a story; rather, they lay out instructions and theology for the early church, often using the techniques of ancient Greek rhetoric to do so. To say the least, the prospect of ending the Bible project with a slog through ~200 pages of this epistolary material did not seem all that exciting.

To get around this, and the risk of dragging out the project over another month or two, I borrowed a technique I learned in college: set an arbitrary deadline and cram like heck to meet it!

It so happened that by the end of 2013, I had only finished about one and a half gospels, and so had over 300 pages left to finish in the NT before I was done with the Bible. Since I'd made no plans for New Year's Eve, I decided I would try my best to finish before midnight. After I got home from work, I sat down with some snacks and a couple of Bibles for cross-referencing and went to town. I ended up making it about halfway through the remaining 300 pages before midnight, going to sleep, waking up early, and finishing the rest over the course of the next day, finishing just before midnight on New Year's Day, 2014. So if the Whole Bible Project had really been a college assignment, I would have lost a letter grade for turning it in a day late. Still: the arbitrary deadline worked! 300 pages in 2 days was by far the best speed I'd managed to accomplish over the course of the project. The real question was: at that pace, would I get anything meaningful out of it?

What I Got Out of It:

Dude, of course I did. The Bible is awesome; pretty much no matter how fast you read it, you can learn something. As the New Testament book of Hebrews puts it, "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword."

Except, of course, that when you read that verse in context, it's clear that it means nothing of the kind:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13, NRSV)
In Hebrews, the verse is clearly referring not to the liveliness and potency of scripture, but to God's ability to speak to and judge the human heart. Yet I have never heard this verse quoted by a Christian except as a way of talking about the Bible, "God's word," as we have come to call it, never mind that the Bible as we know it, for obvious reasons, simply did not exist when the anonymous author of Hebrews was writing.

One of the most interesting parts of reading through the whole NT, then, was putting back into context verses that I'd heard quoted time again in church as prooftexts for some idea or other, discovering in the process that they meant something completely different than I'd been taught. Here's another one, Romans 8:28: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God" (NRSV). For some reason, this is often quoted as proof that God wills all things, good or bad, and that the bad things he wills are secretly going to work out for the better, which has always struck me as insane. The notion that rapes and murders and catastrophes and wars are God's will is fine, if you don't believe that God is good, but the people who say this stuff do believe that. In context, or heck, even out of context, it seems pretty clear to me that this verse means something radically different; as my commentary so helpfully put it, "[Romans 8:28] does not say that God wills all things, but that God works in all things for the good of those who love God" (New Interpreter's Study Bible, pg. 2022, emphasis mine). It was nice not only to read it as part of a larger whole, but to have the commentary on it confirm my suspicion that it is being misinterpreted.

The slightly disturbing thing about the project was that, even as I was gleefully reading well-known verses and discovering their original meanings, I also watched the Biblical authors do the exact opposite.

The funny thing about the Bible is how self-referential it is. The Biblical authors were constantly quoting, alluding to, or retelling each other's stories and ideas:

Map of all the cross-references in the Bible; color corresponds to textual distance between the points of reference
As the earlier books of the Bible aged, they took on a new character for the Jews (and later Christians) who read them. The most important conclusion that later readers came to was that these books were not just texts written for the specific time and audience of their authors' day, but as universal divine messages to people, and especially messages that were relevant for their own time as later readers. One important result of this was that the books of the Bible that had already been written came to be seen as a kind of vast code, any part of which might be extracted and connected with something else to make a new meaning.

For example: the author of Hebrews, the very book I've already complained about people extracting a single verse from and giving it a whole new meaning, felt extremely free to quote from and allude to the Hebrew Bible throughout his own book; my commentary counts 30 direct citations and 70 allusions. These citations and allusions are not serving the purpose of elucidating what their original authors wanted to say to their own audience; rather, the author of Hebrews is governed by "the conviction that Christ is the ultimate meaning and goal of the [Hebrew Bible] and thus that the [Hebrew Bible] constantly points to him" (NISB, pg. 2152; the original text has "OT," that is "Old Testament," where I've put "Hebrew Bible," but OT is not a term I've been using in writing this series). In keeping with this conviction, the author of Hebrews disregards the original meanings of his texts and read them as if they referred to Christ. 

My feeling of superiority, therefore, was severely undercut by the fact that the same principle I was objecting to seemed to have been applied throughout the very Bible I was trying to protect from it. Wrestling with questions of context and reinterpretation has been a big part of the fun of this project, though, which I've written a bit more about elsewhere

What Else: 

The best part of this two-day Bible smorgasbord was finally discovering some actual enjoyment in reading those dreaded epistles. When segments of the epistles are read in church, they often come off as didactic in tone and the kind of un-fun thing you wouldn't really want to dive into at length. When reading in a group at a Bible study, they seem confusing and sometimes even pointless. However, reading them on my own, quickly, with a commentary to guide me, I discovered a couple of delightful things:

The first was that, quite apart from any spiritual meaning I might someday extract from them as pieces of religious instruction, the letters actually double as a sort of sketch of the very early history of the church. These letters, after all, are the first Christian writings we possess, and they make for a sort of historical mystery or puzzle to solve, the prize for solving it being a vision of the structure community and life of the first people to believe in Jesus as we Christians, their spiritual descendants, still do today.

For example, the main thesis of the book of Galatians (so named because early Christian missionary Paul wrote it to a church in the city of Galatia), is that as Christians, we are justified, or known to be righteous, because of our faith in Christ, not because of obedience to religious laws. In articulating this message, though, Paul takes a moment to tell how he confronted the apostle Peter (here called by his Aramaic name, Cephas) when he saw him doing something he thought was wrong:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? (Galatians 2:11-14, NRSV)
The point of the story is that Paul is defending the right of Gentile Christians to not get circumcised (since they were justified by faith in Christ, not obedience to the Jewish religious laws, including the commandment that males must be circumcised). It supports his thesis in the book of Galatians: he has stood up for this idea in his own life, as the story demonstrates. But the result of him telling us the story is that we have this little glimpse of conflict in the early church, between two of its most key founding members: Peter, the most prominent disciple of Christ and a leader of the early church, and Paul, the formulator of much of the early church's theology and the person who most actively spread the faith to non-Jews. These kinds of clues are nearly always left out of church services, because while they are interesting if you're looking for this sideways glimpse of the early church I'm talking about, they tend to leave something to be desired in terms of teaching a religious idea or lesson.

The other delightful thing I discovered in the epistles was the radical, creative, odd beauty of the theology in the letters. When I read these letters, Christianity felt less like something a couple of millennia old, with tradition after tradition and interpretation after reinterpretation stacked against and on top of each other across the ages, and more like something completely fresh and weird, at once full of adventure and joy. Reading the books all in the course of 48 hours helped reinforce this feeling for me, since I was seeing the letters all together and watching the church grow and change and think and even argue with itself over the course of its first few decades. But I think all it really takes to get this feeling is to step away for a moment from the idea that these books are written primarily for you, the reader (an idea which I've found Christians, especially Protestants, seem to assume more often than is healthy) and to instead start by thinking about the original audience. To me, the fact that they are letters, often literally written to a specific, named audience of people, was also helpful in this regard.

At all events, I enjoyed thinking about ideas I'd heard countless times before being articulated for the first time, to the audiences for whom they were originally meant. The newness, the weirdness, the creativity came through powerfully and beautifully for me. As a demonstration, I'd like to return to the book I started this section with, the Letter to the Hebrews. The main point of the book is to articulate the idea that Jesus is the believers' very own High Priest, like the Jewish High Priest who made the atoning sacrifices in the Holy of Holies at the Temple at Jerusalem, only better:
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:24-25, NRSV, emphasis mine)
The notion that Jesus is a High Priest of some kind or another has been rattling around in my brain for a decade or two, mostly because I often sang this one song that mentions it briefly at the beginning. I've also been aware of the notion that Jesus' sacrifice atones for sins, in the abstract, for a long time. What's neat about this passage is how eloquently, and creatively, it articulates a completely new piece of theology: Jesus is the new High Priest, who made a sacrifice, not of an animal's blood, but of his own, and not for one time only, but for all people and for always.

For Christians today, this idea maybe isn't that big of a deal. But for the Jewish Christians who were the audience for this letter, who were concerned about the religion they'd chosen, facing rejection from their society and religion, and considering leaving the faith, this creative bit of theologizing might have made all the difference. It connected their faith with the faith of their forbears, and assured them that they had chosen the correct way, that they were still part of God's people.

The fact that the Biblical authors were able to draw together the different strands of their faith, different ideas from previous generations, into something new that spoke to their own day, gives me hope that I and my fellow Christians can do the same in our time. While I may sometimes worry about people forgetting the context for the verses they quote as proof to each other, in the end I am encouraged by the examples I found in the New Testament, especially in the epistles, and I believe that God can still speak to us through the fresh reading and application of these ancient texts.

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