Partially because of just natural friendships and partially because of online activity, I end up talking to a pretty good amount of atheists about Christianity (and atheism) and items germane.
The other day, a man who was being particularly obnoxious about his atheism (which just goes to show, we Christians haven’t cornered the market on obnoxious new converts) made the accusation that Jesus “lied” in Matthew 24:34:
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
Matthew 24:34 (NRSV)
For those of you who don’t have this chapter memorized, this is the famous Olivet Discourse where Jesus describes the upcoming destruction of the Temple and sacking of Jerusalem by Rome. This gentleman’s contention that was Jesus was predicting the end of the world and his physical return, and since this obviously didn’t happen in that generation, Jesus was lying. Of course, he also said he didn’t believe Jesus ever existed, so I’m not 100% sure where he was going with all of this.
But, anyway, I pointed out that the “all these things” was about the Roman siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, which began in the late 60s AD. Jesus would have made this prediction in the 30s AD. So, assuming this is a valid saying of Jesus (which you would have to do to accuse him of lying), it appears he did pretty well.
This man countered with the fact that the disciples had asked what the signs would be of the end of the age. I proceeded to explain that age (Gr. aion) just means a period of time characterized by something. For instance, in English, we refer to the Bronze Age and the Dark Ages. It doesn’t even imply a long stretch of time, such as in Jonah 2:6, when the word describes a whopping three days. An age is defined by a state of affairs, not a particular length of time, and the end of an age surely doesn’t mean the end of all history.
He countered with the idea that this was convoluted and not simple, and that Jesus’ audience wouldn’t have understood such a complicated explanation.
But here’s the kicker: it’s only complicated because of the way we understand those words, not the way the original audience would have understood them.
If we were first century Jews familiar with Greek and Aramaic and the expressions used in the idioms of the day as well as our own literature, this explanation wouldn’t be complicated at all. In fact, it would be entirely unnecessary, because that would be your default way of understanding those terms. If you said the aion or even the kosmos were coming to an end, you would actually need to explain that what you meant was the final end of the actual planet and its history, and not the end of the world situation as you knew it, which would be the common way at the time to use those words and ideas.
It is only because of centuries of distance, the Romanization of theology, and the rise of dispensationalism that we modern readers would read those terms the way we do.
I bring this up as an example.
There is a reasonably popular idea that a basic understanding of the Bible is simple to obtain – that anyone should be able to open it up and, especially with the New Testament, just grasp the basic ideas through a plain reading.
If we were first century Jews, or even first century Gentiles familiar with the Jews, I would completely agree with that. The problem is, though, we aren’t. We are separated from the original recipients of the Scriptures by about 2000 years for the New Testament, alone. Further, many modern Bible readers are not Semitic and did not grow up in the Levant, so we are distant both geographically and culturally as well.
What we have, instead, are the Scriptures falling into the hands of Greco-Roman, Gentile theologians who are not only unfamiliar with Jewish theology – they are in many cases trying to actively excise it. They make the Bible into a story about Greco-Roman philosophical interests like the immortality and transmigration of the soul and the cosmic battle between good and evil. Through a series of councils, politics, and a fair amount of swords, this understanding becomes “Western orthodoxy” which is the default sandbox for both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In the East, things went a little differently, but not as much as you might think, considering many of the prominent early Eastern theologians were not Jews, but were also Gentiles. We had to have a Bible that spoke to us about our concerns.
This understanding of the Bible dominated missionary activity and continues to do so to this day.
By the time this makes it to America, our culture doubles down by also narrowing it down to the individual. So, now, the primary story of the Scriptures is about an individual’s sin and what will happen to that individual’s immortal soul when the body dies.
This becomes the central message of American missionaries by and large as well.
So, over the course of history, we move from writings that are sacred to Israel that spoke to their history, their concerns, their hopes, and their expectations, and we basically cut them loose altogether to put the Scriptures into a story that spoke to our history, our concerns, our hopes, and our expectations. Instead of asking, “How do we fit into Israel’s story?” we ask, “What does the Bible mean to me?” And it is because of these centuries of baggage that any explanation of a passage that hearkens back to the concerns of the original audience barely sounds comprehensible to us.
It’s like when you play Bach for someone who has listened to Top 40 all their life. It barely even sounds like music to them. Music is supposed to sound like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus and mostly repeat four chords. Anything that isn’t that doesn’t sound like music.
Now, I do want to make a distinction between trying to get at the Bible’s message versus how God might speak to us through the Bible devotionally. We all get different things out of books, movies, songs, speeches – all the different things we’re exposed to in our lives. Not only is the Bible not different in that regard, it also has demonstrated itself to be a vibrant source of people getting in touch with what they need to hear from God at a particular moment. I don’t think we need to lobby against that, any more than we need to lobby against people listening to God in prayer or getting personal applications from sermons that the pastor never intended.
However, whatever someone gets out of the Bible that way personally is not what the Bible “means” in the sense of a text that God has brought into the world at the times of His choosing for the purposes of His choosing. I might share with someone how a particular passage impacted me, today, but I’d better not confuse that with what the passage means, nor should I communicate that as something everyone else should get from the passage.
To understand the Bible as to what it means, what all those texts are about, etc. is actually neither simple nor clear for any of us, and it’s not the fault of the Bible; it’s the distance, backgrounds, etc. that keep us from being able to read the Bible the same way we read the newspaper. The massive amounts of Christian sects and the sheer number of disagreements within those sects is empirical proof that the Bible is not clear to us, and we’re not doing anybody any favors by pretending that it is.
Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, were written in the very late 1500s – early 1600s. So, here we have a Western author writing a mere 400 years ago. Most of us can’t crack open one of Shakespeare’s plays with no frame of reference and get all the jokes, understand the political references, understand what the farcical elements mean, or even understand what’s going on at all. The language, allusions, idioms, sense of humor, etc. come from another time. We need help understanding them. Yet, at one point, barely literate English hicks understood him just fine.
That was just 400 years ago in a Western culture. The New Testament is five times that historical distance and, for many of us, was written from a completely different culture. Few people would suggest all the meanings and nuances of Shakespeare are immediately apparent to your average modern American who reads his plays without any pre-existing knowledge. And yet, we expect this will happen without fail for any modern reader who cracks open the Bible.
There is a differentiating factor – the Holy Spirit. This is an important factor. However, when we look at how the Holy Spirit has worked in the church through history, she does not seem to have been very interested in helping us all to understand the Bible. Once again, well-meaning, Spirit-filled believers will have radically different ideas on many areas that the Bible addresses, or even what the Bible is to begin with.
It is possible this means that understanding the Bible is not very important to the life of the church, and we should think through that. If we all agree that followers of Christ are supposed to be baptized, but we all disagree on the age people should be baptized, or how we baptize, or whether infants can be baptized, it is possible that understanding those things is just not important. I don’t know that I can sign off on that train of thought, but it is a possibility. Perhaps we place too much emphasis on the Bible – which the first century church didn’t even have – and not enough on listening to the Spirit – which the first century church did constantly.
But assuming the Bible is important and what the biblical texts mean are important, we have to own up to the fact that the Spirit is largely content to let us hash that out among ourselves, and there seems to be virtually no correlation between someone being a Spirit-filled Christian and their ability to understand the Bible very well. I understand that may not “sound” right, but empirically, that’s the case. People can live and die very spiritually mature in Christ and be used by God to accomplish some amazing things and have understandings of the Bible that would have been utterly foreign to the original audience.
New Christians do not understand the Bible when they read it for the first time. In fact, I’d go so far to say that any modern reader (with possibly the exception of a very self aware Jewish person who grew up in Judea) is automatically wrong if they just read the Bible plainly, because they will invest those words and concepts with categories that fit the way they understand and use language and replace the concerns and hopes of the people who wrote and received the Scriptures with their own – most of which don’t even come close to being on the biblical authors’ radar.
Yes, it’s true that the earliest followers were just plain, uneducated folk, but they were plain, uneducated, first century Judean folk – not plain, uneducated, 21st century American white guys. Those two people groups are not the same. Those two people groups are not coming to those words the same way.
This is why I think a hopeful trajectory for modern missiology (and in this vein, Christian Associates is possibly leading the way in taking this to heart) is not just to understand that modern Western cultural appropriations of Scripture are bound to be wrong, but to understand that all modern appropriations of Scripture are bound to be wrong. It’s not enough to de-Americanize doctrine; we have to de-everyoneize doctrine. We have to plumb the depths of the Bible’s world and get our Jewish Jesus back. God chose Israel and gave her the prophets, the Messiah, and the Spirit (at first), and we need to get inside her head to understand her Scriptures so we can find our true place and the world’s true place within them.
And I believe that effort has a lot to say about our current story; that’s largely what this online devotional project is all about. But it is neither straightforward nor easy.