Friday, June 27, 2014

Wrong Glasses

I just got new glasses, supposedly trendy looking ones. They have rectangular thick black frames, and are are a far cry from the metal round frame I had when I came from the East Coast seven years ago. My fashion manager (read wife) is very pleased.

Churches experience the same pressure to be trendy, to be relevant to culture. In most cases, this is healthy for churches. But in one particular case the early church caved to cultural pressure that I think has been a travesty felt to this day. The early church donned new glasses that changed the way they (and we) read scripture. It very literally gave them split vision.

In my last two posts, (here and here) I have already highlighted how Greek philosophy, the "wisdom" of the first century, had very different assumptions about God and life than either Paul or Judaism had. This leaves one last problem to mention, the most heinous.

Ever read Greek mythologies in high school? Bizarre aren't they. Greek/Roman gods are plagued by the same greed, lust, and war as the people they rule. Many Greek philosophers treated these Greek mythologies (ancient paganism) as infantile and useful only as allegories. I would agree.

The problem happens when these Greek philosophers encounter Jewish scripture. Even when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, they did not recognize its genres, its covenant structures, or its middle-eastern code. Jewish wisdom, its scriptures, seemed unintelligent to its Western conquerors. Thus, Judaism experienced tremendous pressure, long before Jesus came along, to shed its mythology and treat its history as allegory.

In Egypt, one such Jewish writer named Philo (a contemporary of the Apostle Paul) went through the Hebrew Bible and reinterpreted it allegorically, in order to make it palatable to the Greek philosophy of Alexandria. I believe the early church at Corinth felt the same pressure to look smart and view scripture through the lens of Greek philosophy. We have all seen what the Apostle Paul thought of Greek "wisdom" in the first several chapters of his letter to the Corinthians.

What do you get when the church starts to interpret and preach Semitic, middle-eastern books of the Bible as if it they were Greek/Western mythologies? You get the Church Fathers, a group of non-Jewish, early church leaders who tried to make sense of Jewish scripture with the wrong lens. You get church leaders who allegorized everything that didn't make sense. And when I say they allegorized everything, I mean everything. They even allegorized allegories.[1]

What's the problem with this? After all, didn't Judaism also look for multiple meanings and mystically derived interpretations too? Well, not all of them according to a study by David Instone-Brewer.[2] While there were segments of Judaism that did look for spiritualized meanings, there was a competing Jewish approach which treated all scripture as law, advocated for one authoritative version of the text, held to author intent, and discriminated between contradictory interpretations. In fact, I would argue that all of Judaism's forays into allegorical interpretation were in late Judaism and came as a result of the diaspora among the Greek Mediterranean world.

The buzz word in interfaith dialog with my Jewish friends right now is "Hebraic thinking" which is always elevated above "Greek/Western thinking." This terminology is still loose at this point, and is quickly becoming a catch all justification for all manner of personal interpretations. The argument usually goes that Hebraic/Semitic thinking is more comfortable with paradox, looks for layers of meanings, and is circular in its presentation. Meanwhile, dialectical Greek thinking takes an either-or-approach to questions, looks for one answer, and is linear in its argumentation. Since the Hebrew Bible was written in a Semitic culture, would not a Hebraic lens be more helpful than a Greek/Western one?

Oh the irony! We have come full circle. I believe that even my Jewish friends have been seduced into Greek philosophy's approach to scripture. The worst part is that the labels have been switched to make spiritualized allegory appear more Jewish and the plain pashat reading more Western! Oy vey! Didn't allegorical interpretation in the 2nd-3rd century of the Church feed replacement theology and all sorts of anti-Semitic teaching? There is a serious problem with this method of interpretation that cuts both ways.

It's not just my Jewish friends either. Our whole society wants scripture to be allegory. College literature classes actively teach about the "death of the author".[3] The disciplines of science and archaeology tell us that the Bible's dates and accounts are incompatible with what we find in the dirt and space. How can allegorical interpretation be anything other than an admission that our beloved texts are at face value worthless? If you don't believe this, don't do it!

I am not knocking or denying the existence of allegory in scripture. Its authors use it widely, and its convention is straight forward. I am speaking about the travesty of using allegory as a method of interpretation. Reading everything as if it they were allegories is not how the genre's of the Bible were intended. Does reading literally miss the nuance (or beauty) of intended alleogries? Not at all. One of my favorite allegories is in Ecclesiastes 12:2-7. A literal interpretation of this allegory notices that the first verse of this chapter tells the reader that all the imagery is about growing old.

I believe that allegorizing scripture, or looking for multiple meanings, is the cheap way out. It enables us to avoid wrestling with God's hard claims. It allows us to avoid the labor of historical grammatical study. It also enables all of our prejudice and biases to be brought into the text. Ignoring the author's intent enables preachers to read whatever they want to read into the Bible, and preach whatever they want to preach out of it. At that point why use the Bible at all! Use your favorite poem, or quote soap operas, or preach Oprah.

So how does the New Testament get away with it, especially in quoting Hebrew passages about Jesus that clearly were not intended to be about Jesus? Were not the Church Fathers following a tradition of dual meanings already established by the Apostles? But these questions deserve their own post.



[1] Origin in some ways is the quintessential example because he advocated this method of interpretation. He wrote about the parable of the Good Samaritan this way:
The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn], which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. … The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming.
Origen, Homily 34.3, Joseph T. Lienhard, trans., Origen: Homilies on Mark, Fragments on Mark (1996), 138.

[2] 1992: Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis Before 70 CE. (Mohr & Siebeck, Tübingen, Vol.30 of Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum).

[3] "Death of the author" is a tread in which students of literature ignore an author's intent and focus instead on how a community reacts to a work. It has not helped that some modern authors have valiantly acquiesced by stating their works are open to interpretation. Even if modern works are so written, ancient authors did not ascribe to this relatively new method.

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