Monday, July 21, 2008

Alternative Readings - How To Interpret The Bible

I suppose this might get tiresome to some, but I wanted to have some fun with Neil's more than occasional attempts at Biblical exegesis. The other day, he offered up this post, entitle "Judging is a two-way street".
Only God truly knows the condition of someone’s heart. People get mighty upset if a person’s professed Christianity is questioned. Some of that is justified, but they miss a larger point: Many people will insist that someone is saved and not realize they are being just as judgmental.

Think about it: Claiming that someone isn’t saved implies that you know their heart. But claiming someone is saved implies the same thing. So a little consistency should be in order.

That is how he introduces his topic. This is one of those times I'm left speechless, wondering what, exactly, he means by all this.

In any event, he uses three different snippets of scripture to attempt to make his point, which he states immediately following the above-captured quote, that Jesus never said we cannot judge, only that we shouldn't judge "hypocritically" (italics in original). First, Matthew 7:1-5 (as Neil doesn't reveal what translation he uses, I will be magnanimous enough to say that I am using the Revised English Bible):
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. For as you judge others, so you will yourselves be judged, and by whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in you brother's eye, with never a thought for the plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when all the time there is a plank in your own? You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's.

The second is from Matthew 7:16-20:
You will recognize them [false prophets] by their fruit. Can grapes be picked from briars, or figs from thistles? A good tree always yields sound fruit. A tree that does not yield sound fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire. That is why I say you will reconize them by their fruit.

Finally, he pulls out 2 Corinthians 11:13-15:
Such people are sham apostles, confidence tricksters masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Satan himself masquerades as an angels of light, so it is easy enough for his agents to masquerade as agents of good. But their fate will match their deeds.

He ties these verses together by assuming that they are all addressing the same topic, which on a cursory, literal reading they seem to do. In fact, however, the first two short pericopes and the last are written by different authors, with a different audience, in different literary genres, with different intentions, in different settings, addressing very different concerns. One could, I suppose, argue that the novels of Benjamin Disraeli and the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson are tied together because both were Victorian gentlemen, and therefore the points they make are similar, their intentions are similar, and therefore construct an entire monograph about the uniformity of Victorian literature. If one were to do so, however, without the caveat that different styles of writing, different intentions, different political, social, religious, and other points-of-view might be in place to limit such a univocal reading, I do believe that most reviewers would give such a reading a thumbs down. One can only stretch words so far before they become unrecognizable.

First, let us consider the combination of genre, with the implicit consideration of audience and authorial intention. In the latter case, we are limited to guessing by inference, rather than any substantive information. Yet, these guesses are most likely pretty good, based upon the internal evidence.

To the Matthean passages. These are part of the much larger exhortation famously known as the Sermon on the Mount. They are paralleled in Luke's Gospel by the Sermon on the Plain. One of the issues the author of Matthew's Gospel struggles with is to show Jesus' rootedness in his Jewish identity, religious world-view, and history. He even attempts to draw parallels between the life of Jesus and the whole history of the Jewish people. Here, Jesus is portrayed as Moses, speaking to the people from the mountain top, bringing them a way of life unique to his followers, as Moses presented the Law on Horeb as the unique manifestation of God's lovingcare for the Hebrew people. Part of the distinctiveness and scandal of Jesus message here is the oft-repeated "You have heard it said . . . But I say . . ." In these instances, Jesus is taking a well-known part of the Mosaic code and superseding it. He does so on no authority other than his own.

Having set the specific context of the verses in question, then, Jesus here is indeed calling on people not to judge. He doesn't equivocate, and say, "Don't judge except when you are willing to stand under the same judgment." He says, quite clearly, "Don't judge because you will stand under the same judgment." The "judging" here is a direct reference to the nit-piking legal issues dealt with in much of Exodus and Leviticus (all that ox-goring, coat-stealing business). He is saying that our relations as disciples is not to be ruled by a law of retribution. We are, rather, to recognize our own fallibility and limitedness.

Neil also leaves out the intervening verses, various short epigrams including "Do not give dogs what is holy"; the whole "Ask and you will receive; seek, and you will find" business; and, of course, the so-called "golden rule" - "Always treat others as you wold like them to treat you".

His exhortation warning of "false prophets" has no link, directly or otherwise, with his exhortation not to judge. There just isn't any. In the earlier instance, he is distancing his own stance vis-a-vis the behavior of those who nit-pick the law to determine who is and is not just. In the latter case, he is telling people that there are criteria to determine who is, and is not, a false prophet. He uses the agrarian analogy of "fruits", which many of his hearers would understand, to draw out what he is saying. Neil also does not quote the passage that follows, in which Jesus says "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of Heaven". That is tied in, in many ways not only to the false prophet sayings, but both are tied in to the context of Jesus' day, with the apocalyptic hope of the coming Day of the LORD. Jesus is here referencing common religio-political understandings that, soon, the LORD would deliver the people from the oppression of Rome. Yet, Jesus is also saying his way is the true way, and is to be measured by its results (kind of like the LORD in Exodus, who, when asked to give a sign by Moses, tells Moses the sign will be when he does what he is told; again, there is a parallel here with the scriptural account of the LORD's dealings with the people of Israel that is implicit but still needs to be heard).

I find it striking that Neil would pick this particular passage from 2 Corinthians to boost his argument concerning "judging" and "fruits". Part of a much larger argument from Paul, in which the apostle is chastising the Corinthian Church for denigrating him personally (!!) and for (possibly) embracing what Paul calls "a different gospel", the passage in question deals specifically with various claimants to the title "apostle" who have visited Corinth after Paul, run him down, and offered a different version of the gospel. The "sham apostles" are very specific individuals who are causing many problems within the Corinthian congregation, problems Paul has been dealing with through various visits and letters to them. If one reads 2 Corinthians from the beginning of chapter 10 through 12:10, one will see that this little passage is meaningless outside the context of Paul trying to remind the Corinthians of the roots of his own authority, and the lack of any authority for those who come after. Is Paul "judging" here? No. Is he talking about "false prophets" who bear "bad fruit"? No. He merely states they are con men. They are liars. He compares them to Satan "masquerading as an angel of light", but he does not say they are so.

In all, when considering these verses in context, not just of their literary genre, but within the broader context of the writings themselves, I am not really sure how one can construct any argument whatsoever that ties these verses together. Certainly, I do not believe it is possible to do so and leave the verses with any integrity. Being a self-refuting, po-mo, clueless coward, however, what do I know? Especially since I'm a pagan.

Virtual Tin Cup

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