Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reading the Bible in the Dark

In the early days of Messianic Jewish Musings, I dealt extensively with the sort of over-literalist Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion crowd. Some of my good friends still read the Bible this way. The view goes like this: Yeshua had to be in the tomb three whole days and three whole nights or this would violate the prophecy from Jonah being three days and nights in the whale’s belly. Thus, if Yeshua rose Saturday night or Sunday before dawn, he had to be crucified on Wednesday (some say Thursday). This viewpoint overlooks many things, most notably that “after three days” is NOT EQUAL to “on the third day.” This view simply privileges one description over another and uses evidence selectively. As will be seen in future articles as well, this view CANNOT EXPLAIN the notion in all the gospels that they rushed to bury Yeshua before the Sabbath.

Derek Leman
After Three Days? Third Day? Yeshua and Passover

I used to enjoy reading the Bible. It used to be a simple pleasure to sit quietly, sipping a cup of coffee or tea and to immerse myself in the narrative; to experience, at least to some small degree, the lives of the men and women who had encountered God in a very special way.

I suppose, like most people, I took the Bible at face value or at least perceived it through the lens of my faith in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ (Yeshua HaMashiach), our Lord. When I became involved in the "Messianic movement", I felt like my knowledge of what that wonderful narrative was saying became deeper and a rich tapestry of comprehension had been spread out before me.

What did I know?

As Derek describes in his blog post, I am one of those over-literalist types and a member of the Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion crowd. From my understanding, it didn't make a great deal of sense to try and compact or compress three days into about a day-and-a-half just to make sure that Good Friday stayed Good Friday and that Easter Sunday stayed Easter Sunday. I got the impression that shifting my internal framework on the Messiah to favor Pesach (Passover) freed me from having to perform a lot of theological and literary gymnastics.

Then I read Derek's blog this morning and it reminded me that we can never take the Word of God at face value. Anymore, I feel like reading the Bible is like walking into a room full of trap doors and land mines. Everything seems quiet and innocent, but one wrong move and you're either dropped into a pit full of poison spikes or blown into the middle of next week.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not disdaining Derek, his observations, or his blog. He's an educated person who holds advanced degrees in theological topics, and he's an educator. He's doing what he is supposed to do. Still, my heart sank when I realized that another one of my assumptions and perspectives had been shot to "blue blazes", so to speak.

But what do I know?

Every Passover, my congregation conducts a public Seder. As part of our service, I read aloud from the latter portion of Chapter 16: One Long Day in D. Thomas Lancaster's King of The Jews. It is an hour by hour description, based on the Gospel of Mark, of the day of the crucifixion, from 9.a.m. until Seder night after the Master is entombed.

It's a very moving sequence, at least for me, and the people attending our Seder are often captured by the lived retelling of the sacrifice of our own "Passover lamb". It's a stark reminder of what he did for us and how we should experience the Seder, fully realizing and even "feeling" that we have been "passed over" by death because the Lamb of God has taken our place.

In last Monday's blog, I went "book shopping" and last night, I settled on a couple of books to read on the subject of the deity of Jesus. This is yet another topic that can't be taken for granted (and in my case, I haven't been), yet it is a belief from which many Christians and Messianics draw a great deal of meaning and truth.

I'm not saying I don't believe in education or gaining a deeper understanding of what the Bible is trying to tell us, but it seems as if having a straightforward view of the Bible and experiencing a simple faith is no longer possible. Once you cross some sort of invisible line, you can't "trust" the Word or faith anymore. You can't look at either one (at least I can't) without wondering what sort of mask they're wearing today (and given this particular revelation, I wonder how the Bereans ever managed...they must have been scriptural geniuses).

While pursuing "hidden truths" may be exciting for some, I'd just like to be able to open the Bible and believe that what I can read and understand in its pages is what it's really telling me.

Of course my struggles are my struggles and they start and end with me, but I can't help wondering about the legion of "ordinary people" out there who read the Bible, trust what their Pastors and Sunday School teachers say about the Bible, and move through it's pages with innocent and uncomplicated assurance that the English words mean exactly what they seem to mean.

Why does understanding God, at least on a very basic level, have to be so hard? Why should you have to approach the Bible each morning as if you're preparing to write a thesis for a Master's Degree? If the Gospel is supposed to be the "Good News", how can we know for sure, unless we consult theologians and scholars who can interpret every single "jot and tittle" for us? If the "Good News of Jesus Christ" is really so complicated and cryptic, how can anyone find that simple, comforting faith?

This is in no way a criticism or Derek Leman, his blog, educated people, scholars, or theologians. This is just my way of saying "ouch" after stubbing my toe on another unseen rock while traveling down the road in the dark.

The road is long and often, we stumble in the dark...


Gene Shlomovich said...

"If the "Good News of Jesus Christ" is really so complicated and cryptic, how can anyone find that simple, comforting faith?"

One must remember that the Good News was passed around from person to person without the benefit of the "New Testament". It was primarily an "oral" Good News. There are many gospels floating around - just all the difference accounts of witness and re-tellers. One relayed the "gospel" to people the best yo could. Sure, many Jews who became believers also needed to rely on the Torah and the Prophets to relate to it (but I am sure that many didn't not - not everyone was even literate). The pagan Gentiles - they probably were simply drawn to the love of G-d, faith and hope that the Good News taught. The Gospels were put down on paper many years after the resurrection, and they and the various other letters were not assembled together and canonized in their present form until almost 400 years later.

There are many variations among various manuscripts of NT, some altering the meaning of certain passages significantly. In my early days as a believer I expected nothing but perfection from the word of G-d, so that all the footnotes in my NT used to bother me to no end and even make me question my faith at time. I don't think that NT was meant to be a second Torah where each letter is perfectly preserved by the scribes. It was simply a retelling/announcement of the Good News of Messiah, parts of it passed from person to person, then written down to pass it along.

benicho said...

Want us to take out Derek?

James said...

Gene, are you then drawing a qualitative difference between the Torah/Prophets/Writings and the Apostolic Scriptures?

Actually, that brings up another question. Can the Torah be interpreted only one way? My guess is "not", since you have a degree of variability in how the different branches of modern Judaism view the mitzvot. Even in the days of Yeshua, groups such as the Pharisees and the Essenes disagreed sharply on some issues (resurrection, for one). My humble introduction to the Talmud tells me that it is the guide by which Torah is understood, but the sages still interpret meaning in different ways.

As a personality, I'm something of a contradiction. I love exploring all of the different avenues of understanding God and the Bible but at the end of the day, I also want it to make sense offer some closure. I want all of the avenues to ultimately lead to a single destination when instead, they all lead off into many different directions (like Yogi Berra said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it").

As I was driving to work this morning, I was thinking about the basic conflict I seem to be having and how I see others not experiencing this conflict. From my point of view, other religious people have chosen a "bias" to adopt and then they've settled down into accepting that bias as "true". It almost doesn't matter, within the Christian/Messianic context, which bias you select, as long as you can comfortably live in it.

My issue is that I keep questioning biases (tipping sacred cows, as I once blogged). Even having selected a bias (One Law in my case), I ended up questioning the perspective and now find myself at a crossroads of sorts. However, unlike Yogi Berra, I don't find it easy to travel more than one path at a time, and so I remain suspended in transition, being neither "here" nor "there", so to speak.

No benicho, I don't want Derek "taken out". ;-)

His blog post was merely the catalyst, not the causal agent.

Derek Leman said...


The issue you bring up is a good one. When people read the Bible without attention to details, they don't even notice things like the variance between "after three days" and "on the third day." This is the ignorance-is-bliss category (but it's not really bliss, since the spiritual punch many times is in the details).

The next step for most people is harmonization at any cost. We find this in most traditional interpreters. Thus, John is right about the timing of the crucifixion on the preparation day for Passover and so are the synoptics when they say the crucifixion happened on Passover after the Seder.

The step after that is not to explain away the differences, but to explore them, consider where they came from, and to be open-minded about them.

But getting more sophisticated in reading Scripture causes many a faith problem. If things are not so simple as I thought them in my early days of faith, should I doubt Scripture as God's word?

I had that problem briefly. It didn't last long. There are too many reasons to believe to let details and variances in biblical accounts argue against faith or even against the authority of prophets and apostles. When our theory of the Bible clashes with out understanding of the Torah and gospel, it is our theory of the Bible that must adapt. We can and must uphold the authority of Scripture without requiring that the Bible come without variances, discrepancies, and creative interpretation.

I could say much more about this. Just broaching the subject in this comment.

Derek Leman

Derek Leman said...


Watching over my shoulder ;-)

James said...

I could say much more about this. Just broaching the subject in this comment.

I sense another post coming on at Derek's blog.

Dan Benzvi said...

Our faith stands on the fact that Yeshua was resurrected, not on what day he was resurrected.

Anonymous said...

James, et al

I feel God's presence when reading the initial post and comments. I am reminded of the parables Jesus taught and his small frustration when he had to re-tell these parables in a literal form to his disciples, who didn't always understand the metaphorical or hidden meaning.

We cannot understand, I don't think, Yeshua's complete message because he spoke his message to an oral culture with approximately 10% of the population with the ability to read. Once we understand the messages of Yeshua, think about all those conversations unrecorded.

Nevertheless, turn off the mind today and listen to the glory of God still speaking and acting upon this universe and your precious souls.


James said...

Justin's blog today seems somewhat related. Thought I'd pass it along. I'll comment more on your responses later.

James said...

I feel God's presence when reading the initial post and comments. I am reminded of the parables Jesus taught and his small frustration when he had to re-tell these parables in a literal form to his disciples, who didn't always understand the metaphorical or hidden meaning.

Just had a thought. God spoke to Moses "face to face" (so to speak) but to the other prophets he spoke in dreams and visions. Jesus spoke to the masses in parables but gave the plain meaning of his parables to his disciples.

Think about it.

Is "closeness" to God related to understanding? I suppose that could mean scholars are closer to God than non-scholars because of their greater understanding of scripture, but that doesn't make sense. Moses and the disciples of Jesus weren't any smarter than the people around them (necessarily) so intelligence and education can't be a major factor.

So shouldn't the meaning of God's words, if we take how God spoke to Moses and how Jesus spoke to his close disciples as examples, be clearer to people who are nearer to "the Source" spiritually?

I'm just shooting off sparks, but it would help level the playing field and not leave the understanding of God's intentions in the hands of those who have access to a higher education by virtue of income and social class.

As you can tell, the whole "access to God" issue bothers me. I can't get over the feeling that there's a very simple person out there somewhere who loves God with all of his or her heart, who serves Him with an intense sincerity, and who is closer to being with and understanding Him than all of the Ph.Ds in the world combined.

If little children can approach Him and such is the Kingdom of Heaven, then isn't the "currency" that allows us a closer spiritual understanding faith and openness rather than intellectual capacity and educational sophistication?

Gene Shlomovich said...

"As you can tell, the whole "access to God" issue bothers me. I can't get over the feeling that there's a very simple person out there somewhere who loves God with all of his or her heart, who serves Him with an intense sincerity, and who is closer to being with and understanding Him than all of the Ph.Ds in the world combined."

True. And yet, here were have Yeshua himself, at the tender age of 12, listening and talking scripture with the sages of his day. The teachers were amazed at the understanding of young Yeshua. Commentator David Guzik remarked that this event was a little like "a junior high school kid discussing physics with Einstein."

And also...

Luke 2:40 says: "The child grew and became strong; he was FILLED with WISDOM, and the grace of God was upon him."

Clearly, the wisdom discussed here is understanding of deeper things of G-d.

We too are exhorted to seek wisdom above all.

"For wisdom is far more valuable than rubies. Nothing you desire can be compared with it." (Proverbs 8:11)

I think that wisdom rooted in G-d should naturally lead to things like love, faith, hope, etc.

Derek Leman said...


No need to be bothered about the problem of less knowledgeable or intellectual disciples.

Knowing God is knowledge and experience, learning and love.

Disciples are called to be in the inner circle and learn more deeply. But this is not so we can arrive at "mastery" of knowledge, but because the learning/knowing process brings us near to God. It's the journey, not the destination.

Meanwhile, as Luzzatto says in Mesillat Yesharim (and Christian devotional masters say the same thing), if we gain all sorts of knowledge of philosophy, science, theology, or even biblical exegesis but fail to study the fear and love of God, we have not learned well.

Intellectualism is no sign of discipleship, but intellectuals can glorify God with thought and intellectuals can and must be drawn to God through ever deepening knowledge.

But experience and love are what the knowledge is for and not the other way around.

benicho said...

Looks like you got off the hook this time Derek :p

James said...

Well, first the question of the New Testament and now the Torah issue, as documented on Judah's blog. I've obviously been taking the Bible far too literally (or factually). It seems like the area of my faith that requires re-evaluation and re-editing continues to expand.

It seems I've chosen a good time to leave formal religion and particularly any teaching responsibilities since I can no longer be sure of what it all means anyway. The separation between what the Bible may or may not actually be communicating and what I originally believed is just vast.

James said...

I was doing my small bit of Talmud study for the day (Zevachim 91) and came across this quote from "Stories off the Daf":

Rav Yisrael Salanter, zt"l, would say "Not only is one who learns every free moment of the day considered a masmid (a highly assiduous Talmid Chacham, Torah scholar). One who learns every single day even if it is not all day long is also considered a masmid...

Given the topic of my blog post today and what Judah and his commentator's wrote, it seems to me that studying, and even just reading the Bible, is an act of tremendous faith. The more scholarly studies I encounter, the greater the "wobble" in what is and isn't actually in the Bible. How much of it is exaggeration? How much of it is fiction? If the source, dating, and validity of the Biblical text is all pretty much a crap shoot at this point, how does one maintain faith? Once you insert a significant doubt into the reliability of the Bible, then anything is possible (or impossible).

Everyone seems rather calm when concluding that this bit or that chunk of the Bible is bogus or at least doesn't say what any reasonable person would think it says (in English). If we depend on the Bible to tell us who God is and why we have faith in the Jewish Messiah and we discover that the Bible is unreliable, believing in God requires a much greater leap of faith than I ever imagined. How does anyone maintain faith in the face of such an enormous dissonance between belief and that book upon which we receive our knowledge of God?

I'm forced to conclude that I either already know too much for my own good or I know absolutely nothing at all.

Gene Shlomovich said...

"I'm forced to conclude that I either already know too much for my own good or I know absolutely nothing at all."

James... I present to you 1 Corinthians 8:2:

"The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know."

Gene Shlomovich said...

But he next verse, 1 Corinthians 8:3, says:

"But the man who loves G-d is known by G-d."

I think that's why Yeshua emphasized faith so much and the highest commandment: to love G-d. Ultimately, when we start delving deeper and deeper into mysteries of G-d, we'll realize that the more answers we get simply raise more questions. It's "vicious" cycle. I think we'll have eternity to figure G-d out.

benicho said...

"The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know."

Or how about Socrates?

"The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know."

That's typically how I feel after reading too long.

James said...

How do we know God? It can't be through how we feel because our emotions are terribly unreliable. Many people use their emotional states to tell them what the Holy Spirit is and isn't doing in their lives at any given point in time. Of course, any person's experience with the Spirit of God is completely subjective, so no outside observer would be able to determine if a person were indeed communicating with God or simply feeling "warm and fuzzy".

The document that we have, the "Word of God" as it were, is the primary source upon which we rely to tell us how God has interacted with humanity, mainly through God's interactions with the Children of Israel. It is the primary document to tell us that God even exists and that there is a Messiah who is our Savior. However, if the reliability and validity of that document becomes questionable, is it actually the "Word of God" anymore?

Apparently, without realizing it, I have been approaching the Bible far too naively. If the Torah isn't a reliable document, how can the Jewish people conclude the Talmud, which was preserved in an exclusively oral form for thousands of years, is accurate? If the writings of the New Testament require an understanding of Torah to comprehend the teachings of Jesus and an understanding of the Talmud is required to understand the Torah...

Yuk. It's not just being overwhelmed with the amount of information I don't's discovering that the information I thought I could rely upon for a basic understanding of my faith is built on quicksand. It becomes no better (though I suppose no worse) than any other religion's holy writings, but then I have to ask, if the Bible is that sketchy as judged by Jewish and Christian Bible scholars, why would a person choose a Christian faith?

I understand that Reform Judaism considers much of the Torah and Talmud not to be of Divine origin but to be a man-made moral code. I am beginning to see how they reached that conclusion.

Psalm 121:1-2 says:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

Um...with sufficient doubt introduced into the Biblical record (and not to make too fine a point of it), how can I know that is true?

Derek Leman said...


If we all actually knew how naive we are . . . should God pull back the veil just a bit . . . we'd think these little problems like 2 million Israelites vs. 20k or Moses-as-sole-author vs. Moses-as-core-or-edited-document as minor.

I have felt what you are feeling a few times. It passes and God remains, my friend.

The fact is that most faithful practitioners study the ethical and inspirational aspects of the Bible and are weak on the historical and literary aspects. This is not really a problem except that these same people are given poor answers to the challenges of the biblical text. People want to hear a simple: "It's all perfect the way we received it." They want to just say amen.

It is not necessary for every teacher to learn deeply the historical and literary issues. The ethical and inspirational are most valuable. But teachers need to know that the Bible, as we have it, is far from problem-free. After some time to reflect, though, the notion of the authority of the prophets and apostles is in no way harmed by the so-called problems. It is really a modern expectation that everything be chronological, free of discrepancies, and perfectly literal.

We don't speak that way in ordinary life, so why should we expect prophets and apostles to speak that way?

Gene Shlomovich said...

"Um...with sufficient doubt introduced into the Biblical record (and not to make too fine a point of it), how can I know that is true?"

What people touch will always have problems and imperfections. However, for me, I look around, and I see G-d in the creation (in fact, that was the primary factor why I became a believer in the first place.) From there, I decided to look where G-d's revelation was most apparent and most profound. I decided, through examination and much study, that it was the Bible, and not a holy book of Muslims or Hindus. Why did I start believing in Yeshua - I have to believe that G-d himself drew me to Messiah! People reading NT analytically all day long (including great Jewish theologian like Wyszogrod), and it sparks nothing in them. Perhaps it's something supernatural about it.

James said...

The fact is that most faithful practitioners study the ethical and inspirational aspects of the Bible and are weak on the historical and literary aspects.

OK. Let me understand this. The Bible has "problems" relative to its historical and literary accuracy. I guess I can live with "Moses didn't write the whole bloody Torah" thing. But how does anyone know that the "ethical and inspirational aspects" of the Bible aren't in question? I mean, when it comes right down to it, whether something happened in a particular year of 50 years earlier or later isn't a deal breaker, but whether or not God speakings to human beings (or if God is involved in the Bible at all) is.

Somewhere in there, when people read the Bible, we read stories of God talking to people and people talking to God. Fine and dandy if the Bible isn't perfect in the details but just how imperfect is it? How do I even know God spoke to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses?

Another way to ask the question is, how do scholars know that certain literary and historical problems exist in the Bible, but it still tells a reliable story of God and His interactions with man? How do we know that what is written about the Prophets and what they spoke is at all true?

Up until today, I used to say that the Bible didn't tell stories (implying fiction or fantasy) but it related the actual interactions between people and their Creator. Now I have to reverse myself and say that the Bible does indeed tell "stories".

I know I was telling the truth as I understood it at the time, but I still feel like a liar.

Yahnatan said...

It seems to me that studying, and even just reading the Bible, is an act of tremendous faith.


Yahnatan said...

Oh, and I haven't listened to this yet, so no disclaimer, but I wonder if the recent Greg Boyd sermon making the rounds in the blogosphere is relevant.

James said...

Just finished watching the Boyd video. He certainly seemed to be speaking to the issues I'm currently addressing (and it's been a long time since I've been in a church, so I had to adjust to his "Jesus and me" message).

Boyd kind of blew past the most important part of his message which is "How do I know that Jesus is who he says he is?" To be fair, the whole message is 37 minutes long, so he had to compress everything, but faith in Jesus can't exist as a stand alone without the support of scripture.

Still, he created enough room in the arena of faith for there to be inaccuracies in the Bible while allowing faith in the Jewish Messiah to continue to exist.

I actually continued my experience in my subsequent blog post which is my expression of what life is like when the "house of cards" (to use Boyd's metaphor) comes tumbling down.

This had the secondary effect of showing me what it would be like to sit through a church sermon again. While I found Boyd's message valuable, the "churchy language", the "amen brothers" in the background, and the kind of bouncy enthusiasm in which his message was delivered made me a little "nervous".

Unknown said...

I know this is an older article, but I came here by the way of Derek's blog.
I tried to post the answer to his dilemma, but it just wouldn't go.
Unfortunately I cannot tell you all the answer to that question right now, because I know I am suppose to tell a certain other person the answer first, which I will be doing in a couple of days (trying to get my pics and words together so I can explain the answer).
If anyone wants to know the answer to the "3 days and 3 nights and raising up on the 3rd day" question drop me an email and after I do what I am suppose to do first I will share that answer with you.

James said...

Wow! I wrote this over five years ago. Had to re-read it to get the context for your comment.

I think Derek stopped maintaining his old blog just as I've stopped maintaining this one, so it may no longer accept comments.

I'm not super-duper concerned about the "three-day dilemma" these days. Yeshua is who he is. In time, all mysteries will be revealed. In the meantime, we have faith and the duty to walk in the path of our Master.