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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reading Forward Not Backward


I have to admit that for years my approach to biblical and theological questions has been to look backward.  That is, I would examine the "history of interpretation."  Find out what Barth, Calvin, Augustine, and the Fathers said about a passage or an issue.  Notice the hermeneutical trajectory relative to the specific time and place of the interpreter.  Discover how a passage has bee used by the church from era to era.  That sort of thing.

One of the things that Rohr said at that conference a few weeks ago -- and one of the reasons I have been so interested in Margaret Barker --- is that I am learning that this backward-looking approach is less fruitful now.  Whether it was ever so is a question... looking back through centuries of interpretation is interesting... but it probably tells us more about the interpreters and their times than shedding much light on Jesus or the Scriptures.

Rohr suggested that we need a hermeneutical approach that is more conscious about looking ahead...  This to see a theological issue or text from the perspective of the history that produced it.  That means viewing the New Testament from the perspective of what was going on in Second Temple Judaism and all that preceded it.

As an example, I started thinking about the Atonement.  One approach would be to examine the theology and theories of the Atonement throughout Christian history.  But I found it more fruitful to ask what people in Jesus' day would have understood by it.  How is it presented in the Hebrew Scriptures?  

I am convinced that Jesus and the early church did not invent Christianity out of nothing. Neither was it a product of Greek categories applied later.  It is not important for me to hold that Jesus was so utterly unique that his actions and teachings, and the theology based on him, were unprecedented.  To the contrary, Jesus' authenticity is shown in his continuity with what was already fermenting in the Judaism(s) of his time.

My Holy Week sermons for the past two years have been trying to apply this approach.  One sermon tries to get to the bottom of the Greek word 'uper, which is often translated "for," as in "Christ died for us."  But "for" is kind of ambiguous in English and has allowed for substitutionary thinking to insert itself.  'Uper could also be understood to mean "over."  How would that reading change our understanding?  Thinking this way gets more poetic: to say Christ died "over" us means he died "because of" us... but also could it mean he died in some way "above" us in the sense of a mediator between us and heaven?

I also talked about blood, which in our usage often means violence, death, pain, and horror. But for the Hebrew Scriptures blood was life.  It was holy.  It was something divine that was offered back to God and not for our consumption.  When the priest sprinkled and spread the blood of a sacrificed animal it was for purification and a kind of reconnection to God.

The Hebrew word that often gets used for atonement is kpr.   Kpr means "cover" or perhaps "mend" (by patching or resewing).  (See Mary Douglas.)   

My point is that in none of this do we find the idea of redemptive violence that often gets associated with atonement in Christianity.  Ideas of divine punishment and substitution are not necessary either.  (Some of this was probably added later by Gentile Christians who may not have fully understood the Hebrew/Jewish context of the New Testament.  Not that I do....)

So, when 1 John 2:2 says, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world," do we really know what that means without putting ourselves into the mindset, as far as possible, of Second Temple Judaism?  Is it not quite possible that all of Christian theology, flavored so strongly by its Greek condiments, didn't get it?


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