Some Speculative Theology

1642again, Going Postal

After the most unexpectedly generous response to my article of Christmas Eve I somewhat recklessly promised some respondents that I would write something similar occasionally, and this article has been buzzing around within my febrile mind ever since, competing with other subjects for my attention.  So to relieve the pressure on my sanity I cast it before you and beg your indulgence.  It will probably get me accused of heresy and theological ignorance by some, but it’s how I make sense of my beliefs.  If this subject is of no interest, please forgive me.  Again, it is written to explain, not to persuade.

Before I became a Christian some years after I gave up on atheism (CoE – militant smiting wing) one of the things that inspired my atheism and even hostility to the faith was something I had seen on TV years earlier as a teenager when I watched Lord Soper, the then great liberal radical panjandrum of the Methodists, say that the God of the Old Testament was entirely different in character (tribal, smiting) from that of the New Testament (universal, all have equal moral potential, gentle, pacifistic).  Superficially it’s a strong argument, but Jesus was quite clear it was the same God – Jehovah.  So, big problem and my conclusion was it’s all incoherent.  It wasn’t the only reason I rejected it all, but it was a big one.

Well things changed, as my education advanced along with my life experience.  The first shock I had was in the third year of my Classics degree when I read a course on Greek and Roman City Life.  The reading list was published at the start and one of the two main primary texts was parts of the New Testament.  I asked the lecturer what relevance it had. He was no church goer, but answered that it was considered by secular academics to be the most reliable worm’s eye view of the ancient world as it was lived in by 99.5% of people.  He was right and it left me with a new respect for much of the historicity of the New Testament at least.

Subsequently, new research into the date of the composition of the New Testament has moved it ever earlier, so that 95% is regarded as having been written in the potential life spans of the original Disciples, i.e. mid and late first century AD, with Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians written within 10-15 years of Jesus’ life time.  By the standards of ancient historiography these are almost unrivalled, matched only by the most highly regarded ancient historians who lived and wrote contemporarily with the events they describe, such as Thucydides.  So the arguments that it was all cooked up generations later have collapsed and the New Testament is considered historically reliable (if not theologically).

As for the Old Testament, the work of David Rohl and other scholars is posing a major threat ( I believe insuperable) to the established narrative that it was all written between the sixth and second centuries BC.  Again, this research has come from a secular perspective, primarily into Egyptian and other Near Eastern chronology, and has only incidentally revalidated the Old Testament’s historical value.

So these books are much more historically reliable than previously thought.  But what about the theological premises?  Today is not about arguing whether the Resurrection happened or not.  It’s pretty clear the Crucifixion did happen and that within a very short time that a new faith was spreading around the known world based on the belief that the Resurrection did occur and that many eye-witnesses were prepared to die horribly rather than deny it as fact.  {Interestingly there are indications in Roman sources that have led some scholars to conclude that there was at least one Christian member of the Imperial Roman family in the time of Claudius, i.e. before 50 AD}.

So how to reconcile the supposedly very different deities of the Old and New Testaments?  Some Christians, like Lord Soper, prefer to dismiss the entire Old Testament as irrelevant and not valid.  The problem with this is that Jesus Christ was of an entirely different opinion and said that he came to fulfil the laws and prophecies of the Old Testament, and that from the very earliest times Christians of all traditions accepted the Old Testament as canonical.

Other Christians seem to prefer the smiting God of the Old Testament to the perceived touch-feely one of the New Testament – I must confess a tendency to this myself on occasion.  So can they be reconciled?  It eventually came to me that they can and that it’s the same character of deity throughout.

It comes down to the whole point of both collections of books (neither is a single book).  The Old Testament is a library of books about the history of the Hebrews, poetry, prophecy, and laws, religious and secular.  The New Testament likewise comprises memoirs of Jesus’ life, accounts of the early Apostles’ doings post-Jesus, a collection of letters to the first churches on theology and governance (mainly by Paul), and finishes with a book of prophecy.

But there’s a single thread running throughout: the question of God’s covenant with the people of Israel and its relationship to the rest of humanity.  My last article on matters of faith suggested some unorthodox ideas on the place of ancient prophets such as Zoroaster and the Buddha within the Christian tradition, but the Old Testament only cares about the Hebrews, right, and only they are ‘Chosen’?

And the solution to the problem posed by Lord Soper emerged.  Part of the problem of Biblical scholarship is that the Bible has been over-studied, every phrase pored over in minute detail and subjected to theological microscopes so that the larger ‘whole’ is lost.  You can read an entire Gospel in a sitting, they’re not long, and were written for working people interested in these new ideas, not for closeted academics to spend years arguing over the hidden meaning in every word.  People are in danger of no longer seeing the wood for the trees.

So the reconciliation?  Enough teasing.

It all comes down to the meaning of ‘The Chosen People.’  The meaning is obvious, no?  The Jews certainly thought so.  They were a special, picked people, in the sense of elite, better than anyone else, God’s on their side and they could do anything to anybody?  And the Old Testament is written overwhelmingly from that perspective, because it was written by men, Jewish men, not dictated by God, who believed they were special, superior, picked and interpreted their interactions with Jehovah through that filter.  Incorrectly I believe.

But the picture of the Hebrews that emerges from the Old Testament is of a few highs, and many, many lows: pursuit of false religions, appalling kings (even the heroes David and Solomon), violent wars of aggression, repeatedly conquered, twice exiled, civil wars, denounced by their own prophets for their corruption and immorality, ungrateful to the God that pulled their chestnuts out of the fire on so many occasions.  Hardly a picked, select people, better than everyone else.

And here we come to another interpretation of what being a ‘Chosen People’ means.  At business school much of the course work is structured around case studies, examples of companies that have behaved in certain ways and certain situations, with a view to learning from their experience.  And this I believe is the true meaning of the Jews as the ‘Chosen People’.

They were in fact ‘God’s Case Study’ if you like, an example of how humanity screws up time-and-again despite being rescued many times from disaster, through egotism and ignorance, neglecting their command from God to act as missionaries to other peoples (the story of Jonah is a perfect case study within a case study of this point).  So has the point of the Old Testament, it’s message if you like, been missed, the wood not seen for the trees, by so many people, most notably the Jews themselves?   I concluded yes.

But how does it relate to the New Testament? How do you reconcile its God with that of the Old Testament?  Firstly, the differences can be overstated. The Book of Revelation hardly reveals a pacifist hippy Jesus/God, who comes with armies and overthrows all human power at the Millennium.  Likewise, the Jesus who flogged the bankers in the Temple or who in many parables warned that many would go to the fire for their actions?  The God of the New Testament is no do-gooding hippy ecofreak.

Secondly, the God of the Old Testament is almost endlessly forgiving of the Hebrews’ follies, he sends Jonah to persuade the Assyrians to reform their behaviour (unlike the Jews they do) and inspires a whole bunch of prophets to expound a message not that dissimilar from much of what Jesus taught later, e.g. Jeremiah.

So, what about the destruction of Sodom and the bloody Hebrew conquest of Israel under Joshua?  Well, as mentioned above, the New Testament God isn’t above a bit of smiting recalcitrant wrong-doers (anybody on here not believe in punishing the wicked?).  Furthermore, this smiting is focused on the Canaanite cities of pre-conquest Israel. Why pick them out other than for the reason they were in the way?  A very good reason.   Canaan was the centre of Near Eastern religions that practiced human, particularly child, sacrifice, with Moloch/Baal worship involving huge numbers of child burnings in large bronze ovens, something shared by the Phoenician descended Carthaginians (which horrified the Romans), something explicitly prohibited in the book of Genesis.  Just like the Aztecs they got what they deserved.

Christianity is universalist, open to all, not a tribal faith. The Jews made their Jehovah faith into a tribal, legalistic religion, ignoring their duty to other peoples to spread the ‘Truth’, regarding others as impure, sub-human.  Their unhappy history resulted from this hubris and their fundamental misunderstanding of God’s character.  Christianity was the reset, the reboot, when God broke into history, stopped working through flawed human agents, to ensure that the universal message was freed from the tribal ghetto in which it was trapped, and released into the world.  Why then and there?  I answered this in my last article on this theme.  Why in such an obscure way?  To preserve human free will – which open revelation would destroy (perhaps an article for another time).

So the New Testament sets out what Judaism should have been, what the Hebrews signally so failed to do, a way to redemption open to all, and the principles for organising personal relationships, and those between governors and governed – ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ or ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you.’  Something utterly radical in its own time and on which our civilisation, however imperfectly, is based.

© 1642again

Post scriptum: does this mean I’m an anti-Semite or that I believe God’s Covenant with Israel is abrogated?  No, because the Jews are unique in having been exiled for two millennia, subject to appalling genocides and persecutions, and still survived as a culturally distinct people.  And secondly, they returned to their homeland eventually as foretold in ancient prophecy.  So something of the ancient covenant remains intact.  Why?  God knows, but someone’s looking out for them.