Sunday, December 31, 2017

Bible in a Year: Matthew and OT Connections

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

I haven't worked on these posts since November because of other responsibilities. How fun to resume! I should wrap up these posts on Ash Wednesday or thereabouts.

Although I left off with Luke, I want to circle back to Matthew again. I found a fascinating book at the fall Society of Biblical Literature convention, David L. Turner’s Israel’s Last Prophet: Jesus and the Jewish Leaders in Matthew 23 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).

Let me first circle back to the Old Testament... The Tanakh ends with books that, in the Christian Old Testament, are positioned earlier: Ezra-Nehemiah, which provides history of the return from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple; and 1 and 2 Chronicles, which recapitulate Israelite history and emphasizes the Jewish worship and temple. In this way, the Tanakh opens to the future of Jewish life and worship. The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi and the prophecy of Elijah’s arrival prior to the Messiah. And so, moving from Old to New, we proceed immediately to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which connects Jesus to Hebrew history.

Back in my post about 1 Chronicles (April 19, 2017), I noted (from the Harper Bible Commentary) that Genesis through 2 Kings can be called the primary history of the Jewish Bible, telling the long story from Creation to the fall of Judah. But Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther form an important secondary history, carrying the biblical story from Creation into the early post-exilic era when the Jews were allowed to return to the land and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple during the Persian era. As the Harper Bible Commentary puts it, “The OT presents us, then, with two alternative tellings of the history of the Israelite people. Their difference in outlook does not necessarily make either of them unreliable; it only reinforces the fact that the telling of any story or any history must be selective and must reflect the intentions of some person or group” (p. 80).

The Primary History does not end on a hopeful note, with the people defeated and exiled, and Jerusalem destroyed. The Secondary History, coming from the post-exilic time and written for Jews struggling with a new era, is more hopeful. The Chronicler emphasizes King David and focuses upon both the monarchy and the Temple, so that “[t]he history of the monarchy… seems to be primarily a history of the establishment and maintenance of the worship of God,” a concern that carries over into Ezra and Nehemiah as the people rebuild the temple and Jerusalem (HBC, p. 79). Although Esther is set in Persia rather than the land, that book affirms the providential continuation of the Jewish people in foreign lands (p. 79). Even the genealogies are implicitly hopeful, demonstrating the continuity of God’s people from ancient times. It makes sense, then, that these books conclude the Jewish canon, effectively pointing to Jews toward their remarkable future.

Because two of the Gospels begin with genealogies that take us back to Adam and Abraham, we can think of the New Testament as a third great telling of Israelite history (or fourth, if you want to consider the Prophets as a different kind of retelling of God's relationship with the people). The New Testament does not literally narrate Israel’s history, but those books refer so often to the Scriptures—by one count, nearly 1400 Old Testament quotations, references, or allusions—that we have a another summary of the history, this one in reference to Jesus.

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Why, then, does the New Testament seem to be so anti-Jewish, and why have so many Christians over the centuries been anti-Jewish or antisemitic?

The short answer is: Christians should not be, and the fact that we have been is a tragedy and a shame upon our religion. The longer answer is that the New Testament reflects a time Christianity was a primarily Jewish phenomena, with Jews struggling and discussing with other Jews how Jesus-belief should affect the faith of Judaism and, indeed, what defines being Jewish. When critical or nasty things were said about Jews in the New Testament, it was among fellow Jews—-the way some of my St Louis Cardinals friends talk about the Chicago Cubs and their fans. There is rivalry but no notion that the Cubs are playing some other, bogus game besides baseball.

But after the New Testament period, Christianity was a predominantly Gentile religion, and what seemed to be the anti-Jewishness of the New Testament became actual anti-Jewishness: “those” people (not only a different religious group but now a different ethnic group besides my own) should believe in Jesus and they don’t, so I condemn them, as my holy scriptures apparently do.

There is nothing wrong with realizing how circumstances change after biblical times and with understanding the biblical authors' intentions. Those are aspects of good and responsible interpretation of the scriptures. In this case, we must realize that the supersessionist theology that many of us Gentile Christians have adopted is NOT the theology of New Testament, which is written predominantly by Jews about what they are considering a new Judaism that fulfills their post-exilic Jewish hope in an unexpected way: through the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus. That is, there is no rejection in the New Testament of Judaism as such—but to appreciate this fact requires study and openheartedness. (I’ll write more about this in a few weeks.)

My classmate Julie Galambush has written a wonderful book, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament's Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (HarperOne, 2006), which I’ll continue to quote as I study the New Testament in these posts. And---to finally return to my original point, LOL---I've been studying David L. Turner’s book, Israel’s Last Prophet: Jesus and the Jewish Leaders in Matthew 23 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015). Turner expounds on one of the most notoriously anti-Jewish-sounding chapters in the New Testament and puts it in context of first century Jewish belief.

Many Christians are accustomed to saying, “Oh, Jesus was more than a prophet, he was God’s Son.” But this seems to me another way of overlooking Jesus’ Jewish and scriptural heritage. As I write in my Walking with Jesus through the Old Testament book (p. 50), Jesus was often understood to be a prophet (Matt. 21:11; Mark 6:15; 8:28; Luke 7:16; John 4:19; 6:14; Acts 2:30), possessed the Spirit in a way that people considered prophetic (Matt. 12:28; Luke 1:76-77; 4:18-20; 22:64), and elicited people’s excitement as a prophet, even the great prophet foretold by Moses (Deut. 18:15-18; see John 4:19; 6:14; 7:40-41). The people of Jesus' time weren't just hoping for a messiah, they were also looking to a new prophet like Moses.

All along in these posts, I’ve been interested in finding continuities between the Old and New Testaments. Part of the perceived hostility toward Jews and Judaism in the New Testament comes from an aspect of continuity between the two testaments: the theology of the Deuteronomistic History (the hypothetical ur-text of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) is very much part of the New Testament thought-world. Turner cites the scholar O. H. Steck (Israel und das gewaltsame Geschick der Propheten, 1967) who describes the characteristic Deuteronomistic structure:

“1. Israel’s history is portrayed as one of habitual disobedience.
2. God patiently sent Israel prophet after prophet to urge them to repent.
3. Israel rejected these prophets, often killing them.
4. Thus God punished Israel through the Assyrians and Babylonians.
5. But God promises restoration to exiled Israel and judgment on Israel’s enemies if Israel will repent” (Turner, p. 5).

Turner points out that Neh. 9:26-30 reflects this structure, and that the theme is often found in the Tanakh and other Jewish writings of the late Second Temple period (pp. 5-6). As Second Temple-era documents, too, the New Testament stresses #3 more than #2, and #1 less so yet (p. 9). These themes very much reflect the Jewishness of the New Testament, and in this case Matthew particularly (often called the most Jewish of the Gospels). As I discussed in my Matthew post in November, the community to which Matthew wrote considered itself a persecuted group within the Judaism of its time. Consequently, the background of the Gospel’s “anti-Jewish” passages is not anti-Judaism as such, let alone antisemitism, but a deeply Deuteronomistic outlook about the rejected quality of Israel’s prophets (p. 9). Thus, in Matthew 23, Jesus scolds the Jewish leaders in the way that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets confronted leaders of their times—but not to reject them as Jews.

Turner writes: “No one can doubt that the language of Matthew 23 is several, and that it castigates certain first-century Jewish religious leaders in terms that make people with modern sensibilities extremely uncomfortable. And no one can deny that during the intervening centuries many Christians have used this language as a confirmation of anti-Semites attitudes and, worst yet, inquisitions, pogroms, and even the Shoah. But to the extent that Matthew 23 has been involved in these horrors, it has been misunderstood. Christian misunderstanding of Matthew 23 is born out of the arrogance against which Paul warned in Rom. 11;18-21. Such arrogance ignores the Jewishness of Jesus’ woe oracles and his concerns about hypocrisy and the rejection of the prophets. Jesus’ denunciation of the religious leaders in Matthew 23 is in keeping with both the spirit of th prophets and the rhetoric of the times. This denunciation should not be minimized by denying its essential historicity, but neither should it be extrapolated to apply to the Jewish people as a whole, either then or not” (pp. 379-380).

Turner goes on to note that the chapter serves as an excellent “Christian character check” (p. 380). The qualities that Jesus condemns in the Pharisees et al. are qualities of Christians, too, and throughout the Gospel Jesus warns his own followers to be on guard about these sins (p. 380). Turner sees this character check not only as a matter of Christian growth but also as a starting point of Jewish-Christian friendship and relationship (pp. 380ff). Turner’s book is a excellent study of these and other points of interpretation.


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