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Reflection August 6, 2017
Loving the Bible Without Losing Your Mind: Part Two
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
On Wednesday, July 26, I presented a second lecture on understanding the Bible. I want to put a tiny portion of that lecture into this week’s Advance.
As Professor Marcus Borg notes in Speaking Christian: “Conflict about the meaning of the Bible - its origin, authority, and interpretation - is the single most divisive issue in American Christianity today.” (I highly recommend Professor Borg’s masterful book, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith - 2003; which we used some years ago for a book discussion.)
There is hardly a congregation anywhere that does not have heated debates and disputes about the Bible. I admit having grown weary over my many decades of ministerial leadership about who has it RIGHT when it comes to the Bible. Trying to lead people into a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Bible is akin, as the old analogy has it, to trying to herd cats.
I’d like to suggest that we ALL have it wrong when it comes to the Bible. We have it wrong because there is no possibility we can get it completely right. The only way we could get it completely right is if we took on the mind of God which is laughably ludicrous. No preacher, no pastor, can get it right all the time.
So, the best we can hope for, is to get at least some of our biblical understanding right. It would help us immensely if we could all be ancient Hebrew scholars, able to read the Old Testament in its original language.
It would help us immensely if we could all be Koine Greek scholars, able to read the New Testament in its original language. It would help us immensely if we had any of the original texts of the Bible but we don’t have them. What we have are copies of copies of copies ad infinitum.
As I have mentioned more than once, when it comes to the Bible, I’m always trying to unfold what’s actually in the Bible - not what we think is in the Bible - not what we assume is in the Bible - not what we want to be in the Bible. I’m a fairly strict advocate of pondering what the Biblical text actually contains!
At this second lecture, for instance, I walked through the two infancy narratives of Jesus. These two accounts of Jesus’ birth are from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark, the first Gospel written, does not contain any mention of Jesus’ birth.
When we read the account found in Matthew (see especially Matthew 1:18 and following), we see that Mary and Joseph are living in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is their home town. Jesus is born there.
In Chapter 2 of Matthew, we hear about the “wise men” from the East who come looking for the recently “born king of the Jews.” Naturally when they ask King Herod about this, he becomes alarmed. He will subsequently try to kill Jesus.
Joseph is warned in a dream to flee with Mary and the child to Egypt, which they do. After Herod dies, Joseph is told in another dream to return to their home, since “those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
Joseph, Mary and Jesus return to Palestine but instead of returning to their home in Bethlehem, they decide not to go there because they do not trust the new king, Archelaus. They go, instead, north to Galilee and settle in a new home in Nazareth.
I mentioned in the lecture how the anonymous author of Matthew (all four Gospels have anonymous authors - only attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John at least 100 years after they were written) was probably a devout Jew who wanted to portray Jesus as the New Moses.
Moses is, without doubt, the most important person in the Old Testament. Matthew’s Gospel is very adept at picturing Jesus doing many of the same things attributed to Moses.
The Gospels often show how many of the Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus, such as “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (Matthew 2:15)
This infancy narrative from Matthew contrasts sharply with the infancy narrative of Luke’s Gospel. In Luke’s account, found in the first two chapters of Luke, we have Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth.
They go to Bethlehem because of a census of Emperor Augustus. Because Joseph is from “the house and family of David,” he goes to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife, Mary. While in Bethlehem, Jesus is born “in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Angels and shepherds give glory to Jesus. After Jesus is circumcised and the purification ceremony is over, the family returns to their home in Nazareth. There is no fleeing to Egypt in Luke.
A question that naturally arises is: which account of Jesus’ birth is true - Matthew‘s or Luke‘s? They cannot both be historically true. But the theological truth is that the two accounts, while differing significantly, contain important messages about who Jesus was and is. (Read The First Christmas by Professors Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan for further insights.)
The Bible - while having ample historical references - is neither a history book nor a science book. It is a theological book - a book about how God works among us and within us. It’s a record of how our ancestors in faith came to understand who God is and how God was experienced by them.
But it’s very important to know that the Bible sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to how God works among us. We cannot know the mind of God. We cannot know how God is actually working among us and within us. We can only speculate.
The wealth - the wisdom - of the Bible is a testimony to that speculation. We cannot help being nourished when we read and explore the Bible. My prayer is that we, Christians, stop arguing among ourselves about the Bible and start living and sharing its wonderful wisdom!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor