Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Bible is a Mystery Novel

It could only be a matter of time before the conflicts of the early period reached the stage when Judaism would reject Gentile Christianity, and Gentile Christianity, already objecting to the Jews "after the flesh" (cf Rom 2.28-29, Phil 3.2-3), would reject "the Jews" as Gentiles had always done. We shall see that the non-Pauline documents of the New Testament show us independent developments on these same lines. When we have taken them into account, we shall be able to trace the point at which the conflicts intensified by war between Israel and Rome drove christological development up to the deity of Jesus, and expelled the Johannine community from the synagogue.

from Chapter 8: The Christology of St Paul
From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God
by Maurice Casey

This will be short, since I have more questions than answers. I could have quoted from a number of different places in Casey's book, but I just finished Chapter 8 and so I picked that little bit of text to present here. I have experienced a number of different inputs that have spawned questions about the Bible recently, including the conversation going on in a blog post by Judah Himango and Derek Leman's latest missive, Missing Mysticism in the Bible. I must admit with more than a little chagrin, that my understanding and view of the Bible has remained static for quite some time. I believed that the Bible, at least as it was originally given by God to the various writers, was inerrant and that we knew exactly who wrote various parts of the Bible, and under what conditions all of the different books were written (Moses wrote the Pentateuch, each of the Prophets wrote the books with their names on them, the Gospel writers put their names on their books, and so on). I also believed that the Bible we have now is the exact Bible God wanted us to have and that, through supernatural means, He made sure that the correct books were canonized, that the content was totally accurate, and that the Bible was completely internally consistent.

Having done a bit of reading lately (Ehrman and Casey, so far), I am no longer convinced of these points.

You may say that your faith isn't ultimately dependent on a perfectly consistent Bible, but rather it is based on Jesus Christ, the Lord (Yeshua HaMashiach), but if all of the details we know about our faith come from the Bible, how can our perception of it not affect our perception of faith?

Like most males, I'm fairly literal (it's one of the few stereotypical male traits I possess...just ask my wife). When I was training to be a family therapist in the 1980s, learning to think, listen, and speak in a global rather than a linear manner was one of my biggest challenges. Fortunately, I was able to master it well enough to fuel 15 years of post-graduate clinical work, so I am adaptable. However, my general approach to the Bible has been from my default linear perspective. Start at "A", move to "B", move to "C", and so on.

While I've toyed with reading the Zohar, I've been a little shy about it, since just understanding the Bible "straight up" continues to be a challenge. I figured all of the "mystic stuff" would just muddy the waters. Nevertheless, it is a compelling way to approach the word of God, but...

If we aren't all that sure who wrote the different books of the Bible, how old they are, and if they were copied with even the slightest accuracy from what we assume are the original texts, then how do we even know what we know about the Bible? Further, if our level of uncertainty about the Bible is that high, where do we get off divining any spiritual and mystic meaning from what we read, on top of any literal meaning?

Reading the Bible and believing it means what we think it means (or at least what scholars think it means...and they don't all agree on numerous points), takes as much faith as believing in God.

My next book, after I finish Casey's, is Putting Jesus in His Place by Bowman and Komoszewski. Then I'm thinking about taking on both Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliott Friedman and The Bible As It Was by James L Kugel (and I may even fit in Derek Leman's Yeshua in Context while I'm at it). On the one hand, you could say all this reading is going to really confuse me, and I can't say that it won't. On the other hand, I have a responsibility to expand my understanding of my faith, which includes the holy documents of Judaism and Christianity.

I suppose this is an extension of my previous blog, An Old Dog Looking for a New Book, since I'm revising my reading list (and I almost forgot, I want to read Michael White's Scripting Jesus, but it's still checked out of my local library). Given what I said in yesterday's blog, I have been a little hesitant to invest heavily in religious books, especially those dealing with the New Testament, but I also have to pursue the path that I'm walking until I either reach my goal or hit a dead end (or a drop off into the abyss).

Does anyone else besides me think about all these things? If you do, how do you resolve the inherent conundrums involved? How do you explore all of the uncertainties and inconsistencies presented by the Bible and yet not let it affect your faith?

Don't be shy. I really want to know.
And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. -Friedrich Nietzsche

The road is long and we are surrounded by darkness.


Daniel said...

Im glad Casey is challenging you. I have almost finished Kugel's 'The Bible as it was' and Im not sure I would recommend it for your purposes. It is mainly a reference book on how interpretation of the Torah evolved over time.

He spends about 50 pages on his thesis and the rest of the book is each chapter: 1. Passage in the Bible when superficially read. 2. Insert excerpts from texts written during and after the Hebrew Bible that deal with the passage 3. Combine the preceding to see how the intepreted passage looks like. He does this in a nice way but at least I did not expect this when buying it and perhaps if you are looking for a book that deal with Biblical criticism and that is less of a source reader, you have to look elsewhere. Two books I would recommend that deal with how to read the Bible in light of modern scholarship:
-Dunn, The Living Word
-Ward, The Word of God?

These are relatively short reads and approach the matter in a careful but positive way. I think that will be a better pick than Friedman or Kugel at the moment.

It might be good to keep in mind that its perhaps not feasible (and I dare say even undesirable) to produce a coherent response to all of what you are reading in just a short time span. These matters take time (and more books!:P) and its probably best if you also grant yourself that time.

Quite a few people have given up on these issues (either towards acceptance/rejection) too easily because their studies became time consuming or they just could not live without having clearly defined beliefs.

James said...

OK, guess I'll put Friedman and Kugel on hold for now.

It might be good to keep in mind that its perhaps not feasible (and I dare say even undesirable) to produce a coherent response to all of what you are reading in just a short time span. These matters take time (and more books!:P) and its probably best if you also grant yourself that time.

That's a tall order, since it's difficult to read but not process what I'm reading. I assume (correct me if I'm wrong) you probably mean I shouldn't develop an overall conclusion on the matters of Bible and faith based on reading a couple of books. I agree with that but again, it's difficult to resist the urge to do so.

I'll take a look at the books you mentioned.

benicho said...

I think about these things constantly, all day long sometimes.

I came to the conclusion some time ago (something I still grapple with) is that the The Word is Truth. We throw these terms around so much, but words mean things.

For example we say "The Word is the Truth" but most of the time we don't know what it really means. The best way I've come to deal with it, since The Word had to be recorded is that 1) Yes, the bible has errors in it, not doctrinally necessarily, but as far as recording goes and 2)"The Word" is an account of the truth of how human history actually happened. It's not the book with letters and human translations, it's the account, it's Gd's Word that "this is how everything went down". This is why the Torah is so vitally important to read and understand. Without knowing our origins, we're completely lost and left to our own devices. "The Word" is Gd telling us where we came from and how everything happened, and it is the truth. Nobody can give an account of the truth but Gd himself, nobody else had an account of the beginning.

I could say much more on this, but as far as reading doctrine books, I have to step away from them many times. If I get too wrapped up in doctrinal books I can become extremely frustrated. Like I've mentioned before I love history, and there's no better way to study Gd's Word when studying histories of people and their accounts, we're all part of the same fabric and you can see Gd's teachings (both for and against) by reading the histories of peoples around the world. I'm currently reading Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar.

Derek Leman said...


This is precisely why so many people are mad about the shallow "Bible" teaching that has been passed down for so long.

Those of us who care deeply about faith care deeply about people who either never get into faith or who lose their faith because they are told:
(1) Only believe in the perfect Bible with no problems.
(2) If the Bible has any error, the whole thing is an error.

And then you start studying. You find out curious facts like:
(1) No two ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament perfectly match.
(2) There are four families of text types for the Hebrew Bible with some differences of note.
(3) There are hundreds of issues of textual variation in the New Testament.
(4) The biblical writers speak with different perspectives at times (I like to point people to contrast Proverbs and Job/Ecclesiastes).
(5) The churches have differing canons so that there is not just one "Bible" for all the world to believe in.
(6) The Pentateuch has anachronisms.
(7) The Bible frequently shows signs of being written much later than the events portrayed (things like "as it is even to this day").
(8) The Bible at times seems to affirm things that cannot be right ("Saul, you should have killed all those Amalekite women and children").
(9) The Bible has numerous discrepancies in parallel accounts (Chronicles vs. Samuel-Kings, the gospels, etc.).

Tons of people have a strong faith while knowing all of these things, myself included.

It is a rationalistic, modernistic argument that says, "Faith hangs on the slender thread of a scripture with no discrepancies or problems."

Says who?

Does inspiration mean God taught Moses twenty-first century science? Does inspiration mean Samuel is the only proper author for Joshua-Kings? Does inspiration mean Matthew's gospel had to be written by the Matthew we know from the Twelve (even though Matthew nowhere says this) or that John had to be written by the son of Zebedee (although it nowhere says this either)?

So many things we have been spoon-fed about the Bible are wrong and silly.

It is still by far my favorite book, the source of divine inspiration and authority, and the revealer of the God of Israel and his Messiah.

Derek Leman

benicho said...


How much time passed between Noah and Abraham? Or even Shem, Ham, Japheth and Abraham? I've read all kinds of hypothesis, but biblically it seems to suggest about 400 years. I've even heard that Shem was still alive during the time of Abraham. Couldn't have been that long. Either way it goes to show you how quickly men forget/reject Gd.

On the contrary...2000 years have passed since the death of Yeshua yet the Gd of Israel is arguably the most contentious subject on earth.

James said...

To quote Lt Cmdr Data, "It is clear that I have much to learn."

Struggling to not make a premature judgment about the whole thing based on my current knowledge and to do as Daniel suggests by deferring any conclusions until much later in my research.

I guess when I learn the secret of how men and women maintain their faith in the face of a "flawed" Bible (as well as a Christianity and a Judaism that is just full of flawed people), I'll know what faith means.

benicho said...

We all have much to learn, enjoyed the Star Trek quote though. lol

James said...

My head is full of random quotes from TV shows and movies and other useless trivia. I drive my kids crazy inserting them at just the right moments in conversations (they go nuts because, as my children, they "get" the quotes, proving they're as "nerdy" as I am).

No, I mean I *really* have a lot to learn. It's like spending all of your life in a large cardboard box and believing that it is the entire universe. Then, you begin to discover that the universe is just a "box". One day, one of the walls collapses and you realize that there's an infinite amount of space, sights, sounds, and other experiences that exist on the outside.

Derek Leman said...


No need to become a skeptic while learning. I did, however, go through a period of doubt myself. And I got skewered for it on the web. I said something on my blog about two years ago about doubting the faith. Man! If you want to get the judgmental types on your butt, talk doubt. But my doubts were a combination of disappointment in the people of God (including myself) and struggle over the evolutionary creation vs. young earth vs. old earth creationism stuff.

Many people have dropped out because well-meaning leaders who didn't study much said the Bible is a flawless book virtually dictated by God and that the earth is 6,000 years old. A little research and Jewish or Christian faith goes out the window!

Here's why I say you don't have to doubt God while learning: simply reject the false proposition that faith in God is conditioned upon an errorless Bible that speaks with one voice and which came down to us without transmission problems or discrepancies.

I'm trying to think of any place a biblical author stakes faith on something like that. Hmm, I can't think of one.

The Bible says about itself that the issue is authority, not the absence of discrepancies, tensions, and differing POV's.

Derek Leman

benicho said...

You're not alone, I use movie quotes in casual conversations all the time, although some people are none-the-wiser. The trick is to insert appropriate quotes so that if they don't get the quote it all still makes sense.

Anyways your situation is something I find to be quite amazing and unique, like I've said before, I came across the Messianic movement by way of the church (a non-denomination Church of Christ is what I attended nearly my whole life). You seem to know a good amount about the Tanakh (you entered straight into a one-law group, correct) as where we church folk used the Tanakh typically to substantiate the NT.

Derek said

"This is precisely why so many people are mad about the shallow "Bible" teaching that has been passed down for so long."

Regarding the people in the church, he couldn't be more correct. Aside from the church goers that drift in and out from time to time, most churches are losing membership due to the "milk" (1 Cor. 3) constantly being taught every weekend.

benicho said...


Curiousity, you said:
"Many people have dropped out because well-meaning leaders who didn't study much said the Bible is a flawless book virtually dictated by God and that the earth is 6,000 years old."

How old do you believe the earth/universe to be, or rather, how much time passed before the creation the earth and humans?

James said...

The Bible says about itself that the issue is authority, not the absence of discrepancies, tensions, and differing POV's.

OK, granted all that (and I'm going to try and pin you down here, Derek), but what creates the authority in the Bible? Is it the "faith" that we have in it being inspired/breathed by God?

Oh, I love "history", but on a really, really big scale. If I could have handled the math, I'd have become an astronomer and specialized in cosmology (the study of the creation of the universe). I've had a very tough time swallowing a 6000 year old earth and I don't see the beginning of Genesis as a literal cookbook for how to create the cosmos.

James said...

Thought I'd post a reading project update. I just finished reading Maurice Casey's From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God and I'm about to start Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ by Bowman and Komoszewski. Casey is a staunch defender of Jewish monotheism and believes that Jesus was a very religious, apocalyptic Jewish prophet. However, he does not see support for the deity of Jesus, and is even kind of doubtful as to whether or not Jesus saw himself as the Messiah, beyond being a prophet. By contrast, even my brief scan of Putting Jesus in His Place shows me that Bowman and Komoszewski have a very evangelical Christian viewpoint of Jesus most definitely being God in the flesh.

It's going to be very interesting transitioning my thoughts from one book to another. I'll keep you posted and will probably write a full review of Casey's book in a day or so.

benicho said...

You should let us know how he addresses all the claims that Yeshua made to being the Messiah, especially Mark 14:60-63.

Not to mention Peter's revelation.

James said...

As far as Mark 14 is concerned, Casey says that the "Son of Man" title might not be Yeshua referring to himself but Yeshua referring to the Messiah. OK, it's not the standard viewpoint, but it is his answer. Casey doesn't absolutely state that Yeshua couldn't be the Messiah, just that the term "Messiah" fit a number of different figures throughout Jewish history and, at best, Yeshua could fit the bill as one of them.

Can you be specific about what Peter said where?

benicho said...

Yeah, it would certainly be interesting to see his deductions there. Personally I really don't see how you could muster up the evidence to suggest that Yeshua himself didn't consider himself the Messiah. It's another apologetic effort to reduce the Messiahship of Yeshua. Anyways, I suppose it's worth a read to see how he explains all that.

The revelation that Peter had was Matthew 16:

13 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
14 So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

James said...

For Casey, "Son of God" doesn't have to mean Yeshua thought he literally was the "begotten Son" of the Creator of the Universe. The use of this term could have been honorific, describing someone (in this case, Yeshua describing himself) of exceptional holiness. Here, it is harder for Casey to justify the idea that Yeshua didn't think he was the Messiah, but he does draw the line at calling him literally "God incarnate".

benicho said...

Well it should be an interesting read to see his points. Either way he'll have to make a good case for redefining some things (both from NT and Ketuvim).

I've also heard someone's theory that Yeshua referred to "the Son of Man" in the third person because he was prophesying the Messiah. But I don't know how that theory holds against Matthew 16.

James said...

Just to throw a monkey wrench into the machine, I recall reading something in Cohen's Everyman's Talmud saying that there was the possibility of there being two Messiahs. One would be the "suffering servant" who would die and the second would be the conquering King who would resurrect the first, slain Messiah, and rescue Israel from its oppressors.

I don't have the book with me right now, so I can't cite the specific portion of the Talmud referencing this information. Still, you could sort of slide it sideways into Matthew 16. Just a thought.

benicho said...

yeah, Mashiac ben Yosef and Moshiac ben David. I've read a lot about this. There's a ton of information out there on that.