Monday, July 26

Cherry Picking The New Testament

When I was at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1988, one of the more unsettling things I learned in my classes on postmodernist interpretation theory, both the ones I took and the ones I taught, is what the seemingly prosaic act of reading (almost?) always entails. Unpacking that statement is a many-splendored thing, too complex to address here. Suffice to say that one of the more disillusioning aspects of the act of reading a text, any text, is that we always, almost always despite ourselves, read selectively even when we do not want to. Or think we do not want to. Cherry-picking reading with a usually unconscious confirmation bias is an almost constant aspect of reading. And I am tempted to remove the "almost" in that prior sentence. Usually, on some level (almost?) always unconscious, we know what we want the text to say before we ever crack the book and look at the first page. We almost never address the text as "hermeneutic virgins" devoid of interpretive presuppositions. The only exceptions are texts whose language and content are alike unfamiliar to us. A person who does not know Sanskrit could approach, say, the Upanishads free of bias, etc. But even if the text is only culturally familiar, we cannot be pristinely neutral. We are always cherry-picking. So, e.g., while you may not know koine Greek, you are nevertheless familiar with the Gospel of Matthew, if for no other reason than by osmosis from the popular culture. In fact, biblical interpretation is especially problematical, because interpreting the Bible is so bound up with the culture and history of the West, and also so bound up with what many of us have personally staked our lives on. In this case especially, we know what we want the Bible to say, and so we read it in accordance with these prejudices. ("Prejudice" in this case should carry no pejorative connotations:  it simply means that we are not, and cannot be, neutral.) In other words: we cherry-pick. The Jesus we see in the Gospels is, in most respects, the Jesus we have latently resolved to see:  the way we want Jesus to be.

I have addressed this issue before from the standpoint of Christians' readings of the Hebrew Bible / Christian Old Testament here and here. I even indirectly dealt with the issue of selective reading in an Easter column. But now I want to deal directly and explicitly with how the practice of perpetual cherry-picking applies specifically to the Gospel texts. The popular-culture account of the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament usually goes something like the following. In the Christian Old Testament -- I will refer to it this way so as to be able to leverage the contrast between "Old" versus "New“ -- God is portrayed as a God of war, violence, and judgment. Furthermore, very much unlike, e.g., Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, both Judaism and Christianity (and Islam for that matter) are historical religions.  That is, God has intervened at several critical junctures in actual, empirical, space-time history, leaving Her fingerprints all over the events therein. For Christians, though not for Jews and Muslims (who would consider the very idea mortally blasphemous), the most radical such intervention was the Incarnation, whereby God became incarnate in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, a particular Jew Who was born and lived in the particular time and place of first-century CE Israel, which at that time was part of the Roman Empire. This Jesus -- at least, so the popular understanding goes -- is quite the opposite of the Deity of the Hebrew canon. The Former liked to play with little kids (Matt. 19:13-15); the Latter slaughtered the firstborn children of Egypt. The Former was a peaceable Man, most likely a pacifist (Matt. 26:51-53); the Latter, "a Man of war" (Ex. 15:3). The Former taught His followers to "turn the other cheek" when provoked (Matt. 5:38-40), and to be radically forgiving (Matt. 18:21-23); the Latter describes Himself as a "jealous God". So Christians flee from Richard Dawkins' famous description of the Old Testament God in The God Delusion and take refuge in the Jesus of the New. This is quite understandable. Who would not flee from Jeffrey Dahmer to Mother Teresa?

Problem is that, if you refuse to cherry-pick -- that is, if you read all New Testament texts equally, i.e., if you ascribe equal evidentiary value to all parts of the New Testament canon and give them all equal theological weight -- this approach will not fly. You (think you) flee from horror to health by going from the Old Testament to the New, but the reality is that the New Testament canon, strictly on its own terms, is its own smorgasbord of terror.  You think otherwise, only because (a) you want the Jesus of the New Testament to be "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," and so you (b) mostly unconsciously edit your own reading of the New Testament to support this preference. Put a hermeneutical magnifying glass on the New Testament text, however, and Jesus begins to look about as terrifying as YHVH. And, not to put to fine a point on it, this occurs strictly within the bounds of the New Testament itself. You can run, but you can't hide. In other words, you cherry-pick. Herewith some salient examples:

o Regarding Jesus' much-remarked pacifism, it would seem that there are limits, and that even Jesus had limits:

During the arrest in the Garden, the Gospel narrative says " ... one of Jesus’ companions drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him. 'For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.'"

But the complete ending to the story is rather more disturbing and calls into question Jesus' pacifism:  "Are you not aware that I can call on My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matt. 26:51-53, Berean Study Bible). The degree of force embodied in "twelve legions of angels" must be considerable, because it is implicitly contrasted  with a single man -- Peter, according to the Gospel story -- wielding a single sword.  Dawkins' "Ol' Blood 'n' Guts" God of the Old Testament does not appear on stage, but is always there in the background.

o Speaking of blood 'n' guts, there is also Jesus the White-Horse Rider of Revelation 19:12-14: And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God.

Of course, the usual response -- which is no doubt correct -- is to say that the author of Revelation intended to imbue his persecuted followers with hope by reassuring them that the power of God, as embodied in Jesus, the White-Horse Rider, would overcome all the secular world's centers of power. In other words, the White Horse narrative has a thinly veiled political purpose, the implication being that we should contextualize our estimate of Jesus' character with this awareness. But then we may ask if the depictions of the pacifist Jesus, the Jesus Who admonished Peter to put away his sword, were likewise covertly political. And the accounts of Jesus playing with little children. If we temper our derivation of Jesus' character by leavening it with an awareness of the author's political subtext, should this principle not apply equally across all texts about Jesus, those we like as well as those we avoid? If not, then we are cherry-picking.

o Jesus seemed to at least implicitly countenance reprisals against unbelievers

If the home is worthy, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.… (Matt. 10:13-15) Berean Study Bible

It is difficult to find an interpretation if this text which is not at least implicitly (a) vindictive in the sense of (b) being intended as a source of comfort to the followers of Jesus whose Gospel message was rejected, i.e., Don't sweat it, guys:  they'll get what's coming to them!

o In any case, vindictiveness is pretty close to the surface in Jesus' sayings about Hell, e.g., Mark 9:43, 47:  And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.

Granted, this text occurs within the context of a refusal to render temporal assistance and spiritual comfort / consolation. But it is difficult to conclude from this text that the consequences will comprise only the convening of an interfaith conference on religious and hermeneutical diversity across confessional lines.

I could cite other examples of cherry-picking that occur strictly within the confines of the New Testament -- yea, verily, within the even narrower confines of just the Gospels. The point would not be that these texts should be granted no relevance. Rather, the point would be that the reading and the hearing of any religious text -- Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh ... you name it -- "always already" take work and "always already" more work than most of us are willing to give.  Hence the cherry-picking. I just mentioned a couple of interpretive strategies vis a vis a couple of texts. Until you have done this, you do not know -- you cannot know -- what the text says.  The Tea Party theologians who continually spittle-spray and drivel on about how one cannot oppose Trump and be a good Christian are theologians and biblical scholars only in the same sense that a woodpecker is a carpenter. Granted. But they are doing essentially what most Christians do when they read the Bible:  reading it with an unconscious -- or sometimes conscious -- bias about what they want it to say, the advice they want it to give, and that they are determined to read into it in accordance with their prefabricated prejudices.

My alternative:  think first!

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Hand picking cherry ... Flickr, Matt McGee ... CC BY-ND 2.0
God in burning bush ... St. Petersburg, Sebastien Bourdon ... Public domain
Christ blessing the children ... Bernhard Plockhorst ... Public domain
The Damned Being Cast into Hell ... Frans Francken the Younger ... Public domain
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah ... John Martin ... Public domain



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