“All Scripture is inspired by God” doesn’t mean “All Scripture is equally important”

I think most Christians assume that the Bible is a monolithic entity, like a seamless cloth or a fissure-free rock.

We may know that there are in fact 66 books, but we view these as essentially different chapters of the same, single book. We may know that there were different human authors in different time periods and cultural settings, but we view this as effectively irrelevant—every book has the same divine author behind them, and that’s what really matters. And since this divine author produced every jot and tittle in the book, every statement is important, even every word.

road-to-nowhere-1For most Christians, in other words, the Bible is a “flat” text: it’s all from God, so you can’t elevate any passages or books above any others, or ignore any passages or books either. It’s all inspired by God, so it’s all equally important—and we need this “whole counsel of God.”

In theory, that is. In practice no Christians actually do this. Every Christian prioritizes some biblical texts or themes above others, whether unknowingly or through some elaborate theological justification. But most won’t admit they do—no one wants to be accused of having a “canon within the canon.”

Well, I’m here to admit to my own “canon within the canon,” and to declare that this is actually okay. In fact, I think the Bible itself points us to this. Here are three reasons why I think “all Scripture is inspired by God” cannot mean that “all Scripture is equally important.”

First, the New Testament authors don’t use all Scripture equally.

Estimates of New Testament citations of the Old Testament vary—there are no quotation marks in the Greek text, so sometimes it can be hard enough to tell for certain that something is a direct quotation, let alone a more indirect allusion. One good estimate, though, is from the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament (4th edition): 343 direct quotations of some portion of the Old Testament, and 2,309 allusions and verbal parallels to Old Testament texts.

Here’s what’s interesting: there are some clear patterns in all these quotations and allusions, patterns that show that some Old Testament books and ideas were more significant to the New Testament authors than others.

The top five most-used books? By a pretty fair margin it’s the Psalms and Isaiah, followed by Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. Some of these are, of course, longer books, so you’d expect more quotations from them. But other lengthy Old Testament books are further down the list, not cited nearly as often, including Leviticus and Numbers, Samuel and Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, Job and Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

But it’s not just that some Old Testament books are cited much more frequently. It’s the way in which they are cited, the particular passages that are used, and how these fit within the New Testament texts.

The “in the beginning” of creation, the creation of humanity “in God’s image,” the Abrahamic covenant, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, the “love your neighbour” command, the “love God” command, the Davidic and Royal Psalms, the “Servant” and “Good News” passages of Isaiah—these are some of the texts and stories and themes that show up over and over again in the New Testament, that shaped the theologies of the New Testament authors. These, in fact, are what provide the basic plot points of a larger narrative that underlies much early Christian theology.

Other Old Testament passages, including some that many Christians today really like—the “days” of Creation, the Flood story, most of the particular laws of Moses, the Conquest narrative, specific stories of Israel’s kings—these get hardly a mention in the New Testament.

In other words, the New Testament authors prioritized some books and passages over others in their own Scriptures, our Old Testament. They had a “canon within the canon”—a set of biblical texts and themes that stood out from the rest as more significant.

Second, the Gospels portray Jesus as reading Scripture in a selective way, a way that points to himself.

This follows much the same pattern as the rest of the New Testament noted above. In the Gospels Jesus’ ministry is cast primarily in the light of the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms of David. Other prophets—both storied prophets like Elisha and writing prophets like Daniel (especially Daniel’s “son of man”)—also get a strong nod. The Creation of humanity, the Abrahamic covenant, and Moses and the Exodus are important for shaping the life and teachings of Jesus, though these are mostly filtered through the lens of how Isaiah used these stories and themes.

tissot-sermon-of-the-beatitudesBut specific laws of Moses? By and large these are cited by Jesus only to qualify them in some way, or to offer a different interpretation of them than Jesus’ opponents, or even to overturn them entirely if they don’t fit within Jesus’ larger understanding of what God was doing in the world through him. The major exceptions to this? The commands to love God and neighbour.

All this means that when Luke says that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to the disciples the things about himself in all the Scriptures,” this can’t mean that Jesus is behind every rock or shadow in Scripture. Or that when Matthew says that Jesus has “not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” that “not one jot or tittle shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” this can’t mean that every command of Moses must be directly applicable to Jesus’ followers.

Third, the New Testament describes Jesus, not Scripture, as the ultimate revelation of God and God’s will for humanity.

The New Testament writings are remarkably unified on this, though they describe this in different ways.

There’s Matthew, picturing the resurrected Jesus as having “all authority in heaven and on earth” and so calling disciples to “obey everything he has commanded” in his teachings—indeed, his teachings are the “rock” upon which his followers are to build their lives. There’s John, calling Jesus the eternal “Word of God” made flesh, the one who has made the invisible God known to humanity, and decrying those who “diligently search the Scriptures” to find salvation without realizing that Jesus, the True and Living Way, stands among them.

There’s Paul, describing the gospel of Jesus the crucified Messiah and resurrected Lord as “of first importance” and the basis of salvation, and declaring Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God” who has supremacy above all things. There’s Hebrews, depicting Jesus as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his very being,” the one through whom God has authoritatively spoken in these last days, even in distinction from the Hebrew prophets of old. There’s Revelation, portraying Jesus as the one who speaks God’s word like a sword, bringing encouragement to God’s people and judgment on God’s beastly, death-dealing enemies.

All these New Testament depictions of Jesus point to the same conclusion: Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God and God’s will for humanity, not anything else, not even Scripture. This means, then, that as Christians we read Scripture in order to know Jesus, and then we strive to follow this Jesus whom Scripture has revealed. And this in turn means that there is a natural prioritization within the Bible: those texts that more clearly and directly speak of Jesus have greater priority for Christians than those that speak of Jesus less clearly and directly.

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). We can potentially learn good things for a godly life from any passage in Scripture.

But in terms of fundamentally shaping our worldview, our theology, the essential framework of our faith? In terms of providing the basic lens through which we even read the rest of Scripture? The Bible itself points to a layered “canon within the canon”: first, the New Testament descriptions and interpretations of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and second, the Old Testament texts and stories and themes that shaped these New Testament understandings of Jesus.

That’s my “canon within the canon,” and I’m not afraid to admit it.


A few extra notes on this:

1) What I’ve described, of course, is a Christian way of reading the Christian Bible. However, most of the Christian Bible (our “Old Testament”) is also the Jewish Scriptures, the Tanakh, and Jews will naturally read their Scriptures differently than Christians. Although I think the “canon within the canon” approach I’ve described above makes the best sense as a Christian, I see great value in the approach that many Jews take to their Scriptures. A common Jewish approach is not to take the Scriptures as a “flat,” monolithic text either, but rather to see the various biblical texts as diverse voices, even sometimes conflicting voices, within a conversation that we as readers are invited to participate in and learn from.

2) Yes, the “all Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16 is the Jewish Scriptures, essentially the Christian Old Testament. However, I think the basic idea applies to all the ancient human writings the historic Church has identified as “Scripture,” including our New Testament: they are all “inspired by God” or “God-breathed,” and therefore “useful” for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training” in the way of God. However, I also think the same basic prioritization I’ve described here also applies to the New Testament: the New Testament writings do not equally clearly or directly point to the life and teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.

3) For a more scholarly sketch of my approach to these things from a different angle, see my book chapter called “Scripture and Tradition: Seeking a Middle Path.”

Second image: James Tissot, “Sermon of the Beatitudes”


Which Jesus is the “Real Jesus”?

Recently I came across an article about ten wrong Jesuses that we should stop worshiping. The premise of the article was good. We all subconsciously make a Jesus in our own image, or the image we wish we were, and so we must become more self-aware of this tendency and more self-critical of our understanding of Jesus. And some of the Jesuses we create are particularly pernicious (ahem).

But where do we go to find the “real Jesus”? The author of the article had an answer: we need to look to “the original Jesus of Scripture.” This impulse is right, but there’s a problem: the New Testament points us to at least ten distinct Jesuses.

There’s “Matthew’s Jesus.” Like all the New Testament sketches of Jesus, Matthew’s Jesus is Israel’s Messiah bringing in God’s reign on earth. However, Matthew’s Jesus brings in God’s kingdom primarily through his teaching: his teaching is the Messianic Torah, upholding and fulfilling the Torah of Moses. Obedience to Jesus’ teaching is both the mark of true discipleship and the way in which God’s kingdom is visible on earth prior to the final fulfillment of God’s reign at Jesus’ return.

“Mark’s Jesus” is also Israel’s Messiah, but he brings in God’s kingdom primarily through his actions, especially his Servant-like suffering and death on the cross, subverting the strong power of the world through the weak power of self-giving. While both Matthew’s and Luke’s portraits of Jesus retain this motif, Mark’s Jesus is especially fixated on it. Mark’s Jesus is thoroughly human—while he acts on behalf of God and with God’s power, there is nothing in Mark’s Gospel that suggests a “God-incarnate” Jesus.

“Luke’s Jesus” shares many similarities with Mark’s and Matthew’s. With Mark, Luke’s Jesus brings in God’s kingdom through weak power, through his self-giving suffering and death. With Matthew, Luke’s Jesus provides crucial teaching that is to shape the way Jesus’ followers live under the reign of God in the world. However, for Luke, the kingdom Jesus brings is for all, right from the start. It’s not just for Jews, but for Gentiles. It’s not just for men, but for women. It’s not just for the wealthy or the noble or the free, but it’s especially for the poor and the oppressed.

Then there’s “John’s Jesus.” While Mark’s Jesus is thoroughly human, and Matthew’s and Luke’s Jesuses are “divine men,” John’s Jesus is unequivocally the eternal and divine “Word made flesh.” John’s Jesus is still Israel’s Messiah, but John prefers to speak more in terms of Jesus as the unique Son who, through his enigmatic discourses and miraculous “signs,” reveals the Father to the world and brings light and life to a dark and dead world.

Four Gospels, four distinct Jesuses. But we’re not done yet.

There’s also “Paul’s Jesus,” the earliest window on Jesus we have. While Paul knows of some teachings of Jesus, and is aware of at least a rudimentary narrative of Jesus’ ministry, his focus is on Jesus as crucified Messiah and resurrected Lord—probably because that’s the Jesus Paul believed he met near Damascus. Thus, all of Paul’s thinking is grounded in Christ crucified and risen, the living Lord present in and among his people by his Spirit: this is Paul’s Jesus.

Then there’s “Hebrews’ Jesus.” Hebrews presents Jesus as a divine Son, somewhere between Matthew’s/Luke’s and John’s on a crude human-to-divine spectrum. For the author of Hebrews, Jesus is an obedient Son in God’s house—greater than household servants like Moses, and greater than the angels who serve those human servants. Yet Hebrews’ Jesus is thoroughly human, sharing in our humanity in order to free us from evil and death, in order to be both perfect priest and perfect sacrifice for sin. In doing this, Jesus has carved a path for us to follow, a path of obedient, patient suffering that leads to a better resurrection.

How about “James’ Jesus”? The letter of James doesn’t speak much of Jesus, actually, but there are some tantalizing clues in it. For the author, Jesus is the “glorious Lord and Messiah” who had been condemned and killed unjustly—behind this is likely a basic narrative of Jesus crucified and resurrected. But, whereas Paul builds his whole theology on Jesus’ death and resurrection while virtually ignoring his teaching, James pretty much does the opposite. Scattered throughout James’ letter are parallels to several of Jesus’ teachings especially found in Matthew and Luke. James’ Jesus is, much like Matthew’s, the devout Jewish Messiah who teaches Torah for his followers to obey.

We can’t leave off without mentioning “Revelation’s Jesus.” In some ways, Revelation’s Jesus is like a hodge-podge of most of these others, but cast in an apocalyptic light. He’s the child of Israel whose birth sparked an eruption of evil on earth. He’s the Messianic Lion of Judah who reveals himself in the world as the suffering and slain Lamb. He’s the divine and eternal Son, the living Lord who has conquered death and still teaches his Church. And he’s coming again to make right all wrongs, to bring a just peace in a new creation.

That’s eight distinct “Jesuses,” and that’s not even all of the New Testament.

But let me add a couple more, discerned also, at least in part, through the New Testament.

There’s the “Historical Jesus.” This is the Jesus reconstructed by historians using historical methods, a “historically plausible” Jesus. In actual fact, there are many different “historical Jesuses,” as many as there are historians who study Jesus. But one might speak of a kind of “consensus historical Jesus.”

This “consensus historical Jesus” grew up in Galilee, was baptized by John, taught about God’s kingdom, and was known to be a healer and miracle-worker. Around the time of one particular Passover he went to Jerusalem, caused a disturbance in the Temple courts, ate a final meal with his disciples, was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, was executed on a cross by order of Pontius Pilate, and was subsequently claimed to have been seen alive by some of his followers.

And then there’s what I might call the “Apostolic Jesus.” This is not really the “historical Jesus,” though this Jesus is detected at least partly through historical means. Nor is this “Paul’s Jesus” or “Matthew’s Jesus” or any of the distinct New Testament portraits of Jesus, though this Jesus stands behind them all. It’s the Jesus presented in one of Paul’s rare snippets of traditional teaching which he received from others before him. It is the earliest of the earliest portraits of Jesus we have:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Some might call this the “kerygmatic Jesus” because it reflects the preaching, or “kerygma,” of the earliest Christians. I call it the “apostolic Jesus” because, according to Paul, it’s the Jesus at the heart of all the diverse teaching of the apostles: Jesus the Messiah, dying to deal with human sin, resurrected in divine vindication, all in continuity with the Jewish Scriptures.

So which of these 10+ New Testament-based Jesuses is the “real Jesus”? The answer, I’m afraid, will satisfy no one: none of them, and all of them.

None of these is the “real Jesus,” because none of them is an actual person, but rather a literary creation or theological interpretation or historical reconstruction. Each one is a collection of facts and ideas, and real persons are much, much more than that. None of these brings us into direct contact with the living person of Jesus, either as he was or—if you believe the kerygma—as he is. To claim that any of these is the “real Jesus” would be like me claiming that my Dad’s obituary is the “real William Pahl.”

And yet, all of these are the “real Jesus”—or, at least, all of them give us a glimpse, a sketch, a particular perspective on the “real Jesus.” These 10+ portraits of Jesus are the earliest pictures of Jesus we have (or can reconstruct) and, while they don’t get us back right to Jesus, they are as close as we’re going to get. We can choose to believe one or more of them or not, but we’re not free to ignore them in our search for Jesus, or to put other portraits of Jesus in their place.

A little more than a century after Jesus, there was a movement sparked by a man named Tatian to harmonize the four canonical Gospels into a single Gospel. The idea took hold among some Christians, but in the end all rejected it. The reason was simple: no single portrait of Jesus could capture the real Jesus perfectly.

We are right to look back to the New Testament for our understanding of Jesus. But the New Testament doesn’t present us with a single, uniform picture of Jesus. As much as is possible, we need to attempt to discern each of its distinct portraits of Jesus, not blurring them together, allowing each to give us an important angle on the Jesus who lived, who still lives, and whom we as Christians claim both to worship and to follow.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl