Christians and the Bible – Part 1

by Dr Matthew Del Nevo
30th October 2015

Pentecostals and the Bible

On numerous occasions I have heard it said by participants at major Pentecostal events as a negative criticism that Pentecostals do not read the Bible properly. I have even heard this said of international guest speakers, in other words of preachers with high reputation and kudos in the movement.  Pentecostals hearing this kind of judgement on a speaker who they have just enjoyed listening to may understandingly be perplexed. While on the surface this matter seems trivial, it is symptomatic, I want to point out, of something with underlying importance.

Related to this, as I will explain, is the turn in Christianity to the ways Judaism interprets the Bible, as in the Talmud, the multi-volume commentary of Jewish oral tradition on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), that was written down during the first centuries of the Christian era.

What we often do not realize is that this is the first time in almost the entirety of Christian history that Christians have been open to Judaism, rather than closed to it, opposed to it, or surreptitiously threatened by it. At the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, the first major Church Council of significance after the Council of Jerusalem recounted by Luke in Acts, the Emperor, a new Christian, officially declared the Jews “Christ killers” and Judaism a living rejection of Christ and therefore all Jews apostate.

At different times in Christian history there were local involvements with Judaism to some degree, such as 12th century Spain or 15th century Florence; but in both cases Christian fundamentalism was not far behind to wipe the traces, and then came the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions which separated Jews and Christians and in Spain hunted down “secret” Jews. However, after the horror of the last century with the Nazis and the Jews it is impossible in good conscience for any Christian to sustain Christian anti-Semitism.  This is not to say Christians need to be Zionists, but Christians of every persuasion do witness a new heart to understand Judaism, to see Jews as fellow travellers, even to take an interest in Jewish thought and customs.  This change toward Judaism will change Christianity from its own past. This I want to discuss too.

Jewish Bible (Tanakh)

The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Bible are the same thing, the difference is a matter of interpretation, not content. Also of language. The Jews still read the Bible in Hebrew but the readers of this article, myself included (in the main), read the Bible, Hebrew or Greek, in English.  Despite this most Christians know little or nothing about Jewish interpretations of the Bible; that is to say, of their own Scriptures.  One cannot dismiss Jewish Bible interpretations as irrelevant and wrong before knowing what they are. In fact, over recent decades, knowing what they are, Christians have found Jewish interpretations of their own Scriptures of extraordinary interest and importance. The work of N. T. Wright is a prime example.  Of the dozens of books he has written, the three volumes of Christian Origins and the Question of God is a landmark work of scholarship that bridges all denominations. The “New Perspective” on Paul which N. T. Wright is also a major part of also draws from a more positive sense of Jewish origins and their importance.

The first strand of the discussion I mentioned, of the judgement made on Pentecostals that they do not read the Bible properly is already indicative of a shift in Christian self-understanding. The judgement is in fact, unbeknownst to the one making such a judgement, a symptom of such a shift. And the shift is precisely to a way of taking up the Bible that is more conversant with the Jewish Bible study.  Pentecostals are (usually unconsciously) attuned to this shift, while the judgement that they are not reading the Bible properly is an old understanding that has had its day but persists in the cultural stream, and which we hear voiced, once more, whenever someone says that Pentecostals do not read the Bible properly.

Jewish interpretation

Characteristic of Jewish Bible interpretation is plural interpretation of the text. Every verse yields multiple meanings and not in conformity with some prior set of beliefs or dogma that has to be followed, but as constitutive of new belief or better put, a new way of believing.  This (my argument goes) is what Pentecostal pastors do in their messages. But we should understand that while not dogmatically and loosely doctrinally predetermined, the multiple interpretations are not unguided.  For example if words are not balm for the soul, if they do not bring inward healing of the rifts in our lives and hope and a basis for renewal – individually or for the community as a whole – they are not true.  Occasionally the medicine may be bitter, but not unless circumstances call for it.  How do Pastors know the message is inwardly healing?  That is their job, that is their spiritual attunement, that is their prayer, and in the last judgement it is their community that will decide.  Unlike old denominations where people tend to go by obligation because they believe it is sin not to or they will be punished in the after-life, Pentecostal church-goers attend because it makes them happy and feels like time well spent. Therefore the congregation’s decision on the worth (healing capacity) of the message is free.

In Judaism, the interpretation is given by the Rabbi (as religious community leader) and ratified by the community as in line with their situation and experience. The Rabbi’s interpretation comes out of his experience as a lead member of the community and of a life-time of immersive study. His position as leader would have been conferred upon him by his teacher, the previous rabbi, and so he forms the next in line of a living breathing tradition.  Pentecostalism may have something to learn here about succession planning, otherwise the parallel is clear: the lead pastor of a Pentecostal church is in a position not unlike a rabbi.  The difference is that the Jew is born a Jew while the Christian subscribes to a faith, but in terms of the work of teaching in the community, it is similar.

Changing form: from belief-led to spirit-led Christianity

The shift in Christian interpretation that I mentioned, and which gives rise to the judgement by one side of the shift that Pentecostals do not read the Bible properly, is from a form of Christianity that is belief-led to one that is spirit-led.  There is a sense in which every form of Christianity would claim to be “led by the spirit”, but I am talking from outside.  Christianity based on a Confession of Faith is what I call belief-led.  Denominational Christianity is of this kind. The Confession of Faith is a set of beliefs.  This kind of Christianity understands faith purely in terms of belief and for this kind of Christianity, faith and belief are much the same thing.  For spirit-led Christians, faith equates with experience of the Holy Spirit first and foremost, and then to action in the Spirit; how this expresses as belief will vary. The words one gives that experience, the beliefs that might state it best, are not fixed in advance, and may be preferred to be kept provisional in any case.

At this point I ought to mention that the old denominations – Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy for example – are neither spirit-led nor belief-led in the manner I have just spoken of. They are patriarchal. While of course they claim to be led by the Holy Spirit and while they espouse beliefs, “the teaching of the Magisterium” and so on, they are literally apostolic foundations ultimately, predating the New Testament by some centuries, and their patriarchalism arises from this, and hence their authoritarian and strictly “religious” character.

The belief-led and spirit-led forms are not apostolically based, but Bible-based. This is what they have in common and also what holds them apart. They are both based on the Bible, but the one takes up the Bible in terms of right belief, the other of right experience. This is why they clash.  Both are biblical forms of Christianity but the Biblical interpretation of each is not just different in kind, but also sequential, one coming before the other, or one being displaced by the other (depending which way you look at it).  That is to say the belief-based reading of the Bible is chronologically earlier than the spirit-led, if we count from the Reformation, or that the new spirit-led way of reading the Bible disrupts the supposed efficacy and normativity of the belief-led way of reading the Bible.

Belief-led Christianity arose from the Reformation in the 16th century and has fragmented into countless thousands of separate Christian denominations, especially in America, each with their own belief framework or Confession.  The Bible they have in common, much language they have in common (Father, Son and Holy Spirit and so on) but their beliefs govern what these refer to and how they mesh with understanding the Bible and the church and the world.   There will be some similarities whereby these denominations can lean together, but their differences will keep them apart.

Spirit-led Christianity describes what characterises the global Pentecostal movement and holds it together as recognizable and coherently “all together” but on multiple different local bases. My point is not that the difference between belief-led and spirit-led Christianity is paradigmatic (it may be) but that it is historic.  Spirit-led Christianity is recent, it is post-Holocaust, and in its firm realization symbolized by the so-called “megachurch” dates from the late twentieth century.  Prior to that it was in precursor forms.  A megachurch symbolizes something new in Christianity.   A megachurch is no doubt full of believers, but it is not defined by what it believes or led by it, nor of course is it authoritarian or religious.  It is led by the members’ experience of God in their broader situation (geographical, social and political) transforming their lives, but more by the inspired gifts of those in the church that move it forward.  The spirit is most often and in the best instances keyed to the arts and worship and to specific areas – particularly those that bring women to the centre and to leadership and focus around youth as the future.

Spirit-led Christianity and the interpretative turn

It is difficult for belief-led Christianity to turn to what other denominations say, let alone other religions, for the simple reason that other denominations and other religions believe what they take to be the wrong thing, so there is nothing to learn, nothing to be gained. Therefore it is only the “liberal” end of the denomination that is willing to look beyond the walls, while the “conservative” end remains ensconced. But for spirit-led Christianity, in which pastors interpret the Scriptures to authorise and authenticate experience of God for their people, and which allows for multiple interpretations of the same verse, because the Bible is not being read through a prior given grid of belief, a turn to Jewish tradition to see what they say about a said verse, could be enlightening. This I believe to be the case.

For example – and this is more of a thought experiment than an example – we might consider the preface to the fourth Gospel, which starts: In the beginning was the word. “In the beginning…” echoes the Greek, Latin and English translations of the Hebrew.  Although the authoritative Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation has, “When God began…” to indicate that something was already going on, this was not creation ex nihilo, or may have been, but not necessarily.  John has, “In the beginning was the word (logos)” and logos is an equivocal word in Greek with several meanings governed by context, but religiously translated “word,” with a capital W in English Bibles to indicate no particular word, nor the word ‘word’, but the symbolic word, perhaps.  In English the meaning is not so much equivocal but obscure. This word was with God and was God.  The doctrine of the Trinity partly draws from this text.

For theology logos is taken up in terms of Philo of Alexandria (a Greek), and what scholars call “middle Platonism” that transpired between Plato (before Christ) and Plotinus (after Christ). Philo’s logos was a principle of history, which fitted the Jewish Messianic expectation as well as fitting Greek “narrative theology” of the Jewish Bible, and this filtered into Patristic Christianity, so that it even shows up in the Latin writing of Augustine around 500 CE, but did not filter into Judaism.

But what if, rather than “word” meaning logos in John’s prologue, it was interpreted to mean Torah?  What if John meant to say by “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God”, not what Philo meant or the Stoics, but that Jesus was the embodiment of Torah?  This question, if asked, completely subverts Greek Patristic metaphysics, which is to say the kind of Christian theologizing that went eventually into the formation and formulation of the great declared doctrines of the historic religion: the two natures of Christ; the three persons of the Trinity. But in terms of Jewish tradition it is true to say: “In the beginning was Torah and the Torah was with God…” but not “…and the Torah was God.” This kind of Aristotelian logic of identity, native to Greek semantics, does not work in Hebrew. The correct translation would therefore be: “… and Torah was as God (as far as concerned humankind).”

This interpretation would make John’s Gospel much more Jewish, for in Jewish oral tradition, study of Talmud is kiddush HaShem, sanctification of the Name of God. This would make study of the life and teaching of Jesus the sanctification of the Name of God (HaShem).  For Jews, God is “the Name” not a being of some kind, as for many Christians; and this tradition of the Name, we find in the New Testament, as testament to its Jewishness, in the reverence and importance surrounding the Name of Jesus.  This is different from completely Greek Trinitarian hypostasization or Latin substance metaphysics, for the Name is neither an hypostasization or a substance or essence or being.

Another example is the sign of Jesus’ turning water into wine in John’s Gospel. This is the first of seven signs or works called such by John because they are not reducible to their miraculous aspect.   I am sure we have all heard this text preached upon many times. But why does John call them signs? Isn’t turning water into wine a miracle?  Obviously the miraculous element (water becoming wine) is not the main point of the story.  A sign signals something.  There are various Christian interpretations of what is signalled and some of them are totally ridiculous, signalling Christian incomprehension if anything.  For example, the one that says water symbolized purification and Jewish obsession with defilement, but Jesus turned water into the spirit, symbolized by wine that will make us heady with love and not have to worry about Jewish purification Laws. At a “deeper” level, the wine symbolizes his blood, the blood of the New Covenant that will do away with the Old.  For this interpretation you need to be anti-Jewish.  Another interpretation is that Jesus comes into our daily lives, our homes, and turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.  This interpretation is simply banal.  Other interpretations focus on what Jesus says, such as, “Woman, my hour is not yet come”, and try to make headway with meaning by this. These interpretations are constructivist. But where is the interpretation which picks up on Jewish tradition?

Spiritual interpretation/spiritual experience

Even where there are interpretations that pick up on Jewish tradition they do so in a purely extrinsic historical sense to do with culture and customs. Where is the interpretation that picks up on the spiritual tradition, the hidden tradition working on the inside? The spiritual tradition is the oral tradition.  I assume in the following gloss the orthodox Jewish dating of the Zohar as a text originating in the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 AD) and only finally redacted and published in Spain in the 13th century.  It is only to our generation that the Zohar has become available in English in the authoritative translation of Daniel C. Matt in the Pritzker edition.

In Parashah Va-Yiqra (“He called”) in the passage referring to sacred commentary on Leviticus 1: 1, Rabbi Hiyyah interprets: “Eat, companions! Drink and be drunk lovers!” quoting the Song of Songs 5:1. The sign at Cana relates to these verses. The water is the river that flows from Eden, the motif of the entire Zohar. The river flows out of the (feminine) depth of God (Binah) into the Garden of Eden  (Gen. 2: 10) above where the blessed Holy One (Tiferet) seeks to unite with Shekinah, the spirit of the people, below. “Those below, who are called lovers”, says Rabbi Shim’on, and speaking of the creative forces above:  “Eden and that river never part, and are in rapture, unity, joy.”  But now in John’s Gospel, at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, this people who drink from the river issuing from Eden is no longer just the Assembly of Israel.  The turning of the water to wine signals a going-out of the Holy One (namely Tiferet).  Jesus is to begin to extend the life of God (Tiferet) into the world. Jesus is himself that extension of Tiferet (this is what “I and the Father are one” means).  This is what Cana signals.

Jesus says his hour has not yet come because according to the Zohar at Leviticus 1:1, the other six sephirot (divine creative forces) from Hesed to Yesod have not been watered properly (and their watering is a precondition for the consorting of Tiferet and Shekhinah). Without the requisite watering of the lower worlds (our world) by the river that flows from Eden, the wine cannot flow. The miracle is symbolic, that nevertheless Jesus makes the wine flow anyway even though the time is not quite right.  The creative freedom of Jesus is revealed, with regard to Tiferet (from where his “authority” proceeds) and with regard to Shekhina.

Tiferet is God as lover, the interventionist God, the one Christians usually recognize by the word “God” when they say it. Shekhina is the aspect of God most connected with the people, and Holy Spirit in Christian theology, but in Judaism is a feminine power of God.  The “companions” refer to the innermost sephirot that are eternally joined and therefore companions, and the “lovers” refers to the outer sephirot that yearn for each other like the love between God and those who love God with all their heart and mind and strength. God and the people of God passionately seek one another because they “yearn for one another, but are not always together.” [3:4a]  Yet Shekhina conveys joy and nourishment to all who live in her and who are thereby “partakers of the divine nature” (1 Peter 1: 4).  The wine in the tradition needs to be balanced by “eating”, which will not happen in this first sign that only emphasizes drinking, until the Last Supper.  The “lovers” drink, but the “companions” balance eating and drinking.  But the sign at Cana is that the vintage stored within Binah (the grace) is extended to all. And a new exteriorization of God marked by flesh, no longer just a mark in the flesh (circumcision) is in our midst, John’s point from the beginning. Jesus is the “flesh” or “word” of Tiferet and Binah through Mary if we were to extrapolate.

I have only given a glimpse of a possible interpretation of a passage of John in terms of Jewish oral tradition. Immediately we can see how different it is to the usual theological idiom and how little it has to do with it. But questions abound. What does the inner structure of the life of God mean? Has traditional dogmatic Christian theology then wrongly masculinized some aspect of God? And if it has, what difference does this make?  Interesting questions.  The sorts of questions the kind of interpretation that Christians attending to Jewish interpretation may wish to ask. Each of the seven signs of Jesus in John, of which this is the first, have to do with the inner life of God and can be interpreted in like manner.

Final remarks

These were just cursory thought experiments to show how thinking the New Testament through Judaism can make a huge difference but also make Christian sense; perhaps new sense, perhaps more sense today than some of the Christian theology of the past. Inspiration from Jewish sources brings us closer to the language and thought tradition – the spirit – of Jesus and away from dogmatic theological metaphysics, which has meant less and less as the second millennium has proceeded, leaving theology today somewhat high and dry.