During Lent a lot of Christians give things up. A lot of Christians give up food of some sort – chocolate, meat, fried food, coffee, dessert, or something else. Now giving things up often makes us feel a bit put-upon even if we’re the ones oppressing ourselves. However, I believe that it could (and should) make us thankful.
The genesis of this article began with two simple observations. First, while most Christians pray before meals I have spent most of my life wondering why we pray before meals instead of some other set of equally-spaced times around the day. Second, when I break a fast I’m generally much clearer on why I’m praying before a meal. This second bit isn’t all that surprising – when I’m really hungry I’m more thankful for food. But this also brings me to another observation: I can give up food only because I have it.
Take, for example, giving up dessert. To give up dessert meaningfully one must eat dessert regularly enough for it to be missed. If I were an impoverished subsistence farmer in central Mexico I might well be able to give up dessert every day of the year and never notice because dessert is a luxury that I would never or almost never have access to. For me to give up meat for Lent I must live a life in which I can afford to buy meat often enough that I would notice something odd if I went for forty days without it. Most people in most places and times have not been in that situation.
This is where giving up meets gratitude. Giving something up means that you have it. When I give up food I give it up by choice – not because the harvest failed and there’s no food to be had, not because I’m too poor to buy any food, and not because someone more powerful than I has cut off my access to food to make a point. In giving something up I can also celebrate that it is mine to give up.
Moreover, the reason something is mine to give up is always because of God’s gift. This is true both in an ultimate sense – everything you are and therefore everything you do is God’s gift – and in a more “normal” sense. Why can I choose to give up chocolate? Because I work hard? Sure – I can afford to buy chocolate in part because I work hard. But even if I wanted to pretend that my work was somehow all my own there’s this small issue that most people throughout history could have worked very hard and never had any chocolate. The fact that I live in America where there are jobs for hard workers (even if there are still less than we would like) and where the average income is high enough that normal people can buy completely frivolous food and so the grocery stores all stock it is not my doing. The fact that I live in the 21st century with international shipping of food and a huge number of domesticated plants to eat is not my doing. Were I a hard-working North Korean in modern-day society I doubt I’d ever have the chance to give up chocolate. Were I a hard-working Irishman in the year 900 I’d also never get a chance to give up chocolate.
The very fact that we can give things up – so many different things, to judge by what my friends are telling me they are giving up – is a sign that we are blessed. At the end of Lent we will pick up what we have set aside and we will probably be thankful for it. But right now let us also be thankful that it was ever ours to set aside. Be thankful for the meal you eat but also the one you chose not to eat. And, of course, pray for those who have no choice in the matter.
Heresy is a tricky word. I know a lot of people who wish it would go away. They argue (correctly in many instances) that it is nothing more than an insult. If you don’t like a belief then call it heresy. All the word means is “I disagree” with extra venom. Others (myself included) argue that heresy is a useful word if it is carefully restricted. Arianism is heresy and has been for centuries. Pelagianism is heresy. Identifying something as a named and known heresy is useful – orthodox Christians understand that these beliefs have been carefully examined and rejected as harmful. Once you realize that a particular view is nothing more than one of these heresies you can reject it because you’ve already done the legwork. This isn’t a cheap shot but is instead much like realizing that a long math problem reduces down to a problem you’ve already solved and pulling out that known answer.
In the real world the cry of “heresy” can be either insult or a stricter definition and without more discussion one can rarely tell which. However, the purpose of the word heresy is always to mark a particular belief as non-Christian. This in itself sometimes meets resistance: can’t we all just be nice and let everyone do their own thing and call it Christian? While in some ways this seems tolerant, it’s a real mess as far as communication goes. Words are supposed to mean things and if we agree to let a word mean anything at all we lose its utility. Perhaps odder still, this is actually in many ways an intolerant position. If someone has reached conclusions that are nothing like historic Christianity then why do they want the title “Christian”? Realistically this only makes sense if “Christian” is a way to say something like “correct religion” or “right kind of person” and so I am perpetually confused why people who don’t think that historical Christianity is correct or that it has produced good people treat the title “Christian” as an accolade.
However, simply deciding that some things aren’t Christian (and perhaps that determining heresy is an integral part of what the Church does throughout history) isn’t enough to determine what is in or out. I actually don’t plan on making that determination in this article. What I do want to do is talk about are real grades of difference.
Often differences in theological positions are expressed by use of clumsy labels. In discussions in which the word “heresy” is tossed around these labels are often “conservative” and “liberal”. Unfortunately these labels are about as useless as labels get. Liberal simply means “breaking with my tradition” whereas conservative means “sticking with my tradition” and since some traditions have opposite views on some things none of this is very helpful without a great deal more specification. So what kinds of differences can people have theologically?
The simplest difference is a difference over facts. A great deal of the debates about homosexuality and the ordination of women (as well as parts of the debates about Calvinism vs. Arminianism and the New Perspective vs. the Old Perspective on Paul) hinge on facts. Does this Greek word mean “don’t talk” or “don’t yell”? Does this Greek word mean “homosexual” or “pedophile rapist”? Did the Pharisees preach works-righteousness or something much more complicated? When Paul says that prophecy and tongues will cease, is the time he references supposed to be the coming of God’s Kingdom in power and glory or the end of the apostolic era? The key here is that all of these differences of opinions hinge on one or two relatively clear-cut facts. We could (theoretically) find additional manuscripts in which someone used a disputed word in a way that made its meaning crystal-clear or specifically discussed the very earliest Church memories of the apostolic teaching in regards to our modern question and these findings would (if judged convincing) settle the debate. As long as both sides agreed that the new findings settled the matter of fact (e.g., agreed that the new manuscript data settled the meaning of the word) the debate would have to end.
A level up from this is an argument over the integration of facts. For instance, two people might both agree that Phoebe (Romans 16:1) holds an important leadership position in the church and that Paul elsewhere seems to prohibit female leaders1. However, one person might believe that Paul’s practice is most important and decide that the contradiction should be resolved in favor of female leaders while the other person might decide that while special circumstances may have applied to Phoebe Paul’s writings are the clearest evidence of his general intent and decide against female leadership in the church. Neither of these people contests the key facts behind the other’s decision. What they contest is how to draw these facts together into a larger picture2. (Not at all accidentally, some of this analysis is very similar to my arguments about the levels at which people may disagree when discussing religion and science.)
Integration of facts into larger narratives and general principles is closely tied to one’s method of reading. This is where the first really substantiative breaks appear in my opinion. The example used above points to one such difference. One could not only apply different weighting to actions and words for a specific debate but make a general reading principle out of this – either “written commands always supersede what appears to be contradictory evidence from the actions of Biblical figures” or “actions show us the real meaning of Biblical statements and when actions appear to contradict statements made by the same Biblical figure the actions take precedence”. My ancestors adopted an interesting strategy for determining what sort of religious observances were allowed by the Bible (a strategy that resulted in their ban of Christmas): only religious observances mandated or recommended by the Bible were allowed. Many others have taken an opposite tack: anything is allowed unless it is specifically prohibited. These sorts of breaks are fundamentally harder to reconcile that breaks about specific facts or their integration into the larger picture because the same facts can end up meaning completely different things to different people.
A step further out is the question about what matters or what constitutes evidence at all. One of the most fundamental breaks between “liberal” and “conservative” theology occurs when the liberal party is sufficiently liberal to feel that the Bible itself lacks authority in the area of debate. While there are a huge number of debates that occur amongst people who all agree that the Bible is the source for spiritual and theological authority, these debates are all “in-house” debates compared to debates between people who hold the Bible as an authority and those who do not. However this is hardly the only source of trouble. Conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants may find themselves clashing over whether the traditions of the Church matter (one reason that “conservative” is not a hugely useful label in theology). Effectively these are all debates about what evidence can be brought into the debate courtroom. The Bible? The Qu’ran? The traditions of the Church in 1500? The records of the early Church councils? Calvin’s Institutes? The evidence of logic? One’s pastoral experience? Various approaches (like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral) attempt to weight these sources but debates between people who weight sources differently, especially between people who assign no weight to particular sources others think are important, are harder to resolve.
Thinking about these differences can be helpful for thinking about the question of what is “too different”. For instance, debates between Buddhists and Christians involve a difference of what matters (what texts and what teachers). So do debates between orthodox Christians and Mormons. That might be important. However, debates between Catholics and Protestants also involve one of these differences so perhaps we need to be careful or pay more attention to the content of the differences and not just their type.
One thing that does seem clear is that some differences of theological opinion are too large to fit comfortably under the same terminological umbrella. Thinking carefully about these differences is useful for thinking about the bounds of theological terms but also for thinking about dialog between camps. Where do the differences actually lie? Like Jesus replying to the Sadducees without referencing the texts they might dispute (Matthew 22:31-32) we can sometimes have more profitable dialog by clearly identifying the types of ideological differences that we have.
 Both of which are contested facts.
 To use another example, charismatic and cessationist Christians both generally agree that the apostles did miracles and that these stop being a normal part of the record by the time of the early Church Fathers. While there is some disagreement about facts (namely whether miracles disappear entirely or just get de-emphasized or rarer) the main issue is interpretation and integration of these facts. Charismatics say that miracles are a proper part of Christian ministry that got lost while cessationists claim that they were part of kick-starting the Church and faded away once the Church got going. Both interpretations are dealing with the same basic story (one familiar to most Christians) about apostles who did miracles followed by an absence of such stories from later eras.
For most of my life I have had a simple problem. As a Christian I am called to humility. As a student and eventually researcher I’ve been consistently told that I am very smart. Accepting this commendation seems arrogant. Refusing it also seems arrogant in a different way – I would be claiming that all the people who told me that I was very smart were wrong and that I held some sort of importance (but apparently not intelligence) that allowed me to dismiss their conclusions on my own.
Lots of people face some sort of dilemma like this: you get told you have a talent but agreeing seems arrogant even if you agree only in your own mind. Some people face a larger challenge in that their talents are clearly measurable and they clearly are quite a lot better than most other people. If you win a dozen races in a row against stiff competition are you allowed to think that you are probably really fast? Most people would say yes but this answer may change if the talent is different. If, for instance, I provided solid objective evidence that I really was smarter than most people1 a lot of people who would let someone claim to be very fast would still squirm at the claim “I’m probably smarter than you”. (Problematically almost everyone knows someone they are certain is not as smart as they are and so this is hardly a hypothetical.) But why are different standards applied?
I suspect that the main reason is that we value intelligence quite a lot in our society. Saying, “I’m smarter than you,” sounds a lot like, “I’m generically better than you,” to a lot of people whereas, “I’m faster than you,” sounds more like, “I have a specific talent that I excel at.” However, the overall flinching at claiming to be good at something (even when there is objective evidence for it) may relate to what I have previously termed the “grand balance” theory of equality. This is the theory (normally implicit) that everyone has a vast number of ways they could be measured but if you summed them up everyone would come out the same (or perhaps everyone would come out with a necessary piece of the human puzzle).
Now it would appear that the grand balance theory would have no problem with people claiming to be good at things since it itself claims that everyone is good at something. Shouldn’t a claim to be good at something be a natural response to the grand balance? The issue here is that we are summing people’s worth up by summing their talents. When we do this claims to have talents become claims to greater worth and threaten the system. Indeed, one reason we probably flinch more about claims to intelligence than claims to athletic ability is that claims to intelligence may be covert claims to be good at a vast array of things – mathematics, science, basic problem-solving, literary analysis, decision making, and so on – whereas claims to athletic ability sound more like staking a claim to one’s primary (and single) talent.
I propose that one can be humble without entering into this minefield at all. The grand balance is simply wrong. Human value is not a sum of talents. Within a Christian worldview we cannot claim that God loves the talented more than the talentless. (Nor can we find Scriptural warrant to claim that God carefully balanced everyone’s talents.) Phrases like “To whom much is given much is expected” (Luke 12:48) suggest that there really are people to whom more has been given. However, it also suggests that true humility might consist of something other than falsely claiming not to have received much.
Humility, I think, may actually lie in understanding what your talents aren’t worth. Are you a world-renowned author? Great, but that makes you no more essentially human than anyone else. Are you brilliant? Good, it’s useful, but the Kingdom of Heaven is open to drooling idiots as well.
Americans (and perhaps Westerners in general) are both unfamiliar with and repulsed by strong ideas of social class. When we hear about a politician or a celebrity attempting to get away with something on the basis of their status we are incensed – they must follow the rules like everyone else. However, we’ve made being good at things its own sort of class. People who excel at something are allowed to look down on others in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable if these same people had used their heritage (“My great-grandfather was an earl, you know!”) as an excuse to look down on others. The issue is that when we come to fix this we don’t fix it by saying, “That doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – talentless morons are beloved by God too,” but instead, “Everyone is a beautifully talented snowflake on the inside.”
I actually believe that it is harder to accept that one is good at something (especially something our culture values) and that this does not make one a superior sort of person than it is to simply pretend that one isn’t very good.
Now, of course, I don’t mean to suggest by this that everyone should go about bragging. In fact bragging is a sign that one thinks ones abilities are very important which is just the opposite of what I’m saying. However, I don’t believe that realistic self-reflection that concludes that one is good at something is a problem for humility. The problem is when one decides that being good at something makes one a special sort of person who is more important than others.
 For the record, I don’t think IQ tests or any other test really measures the full sum of what we term intelligence. Intelligence (at least in a non-technical context) refers to a number of different mental tasks and attempting to sum them up into a single measure may be impossible.
The Pharisees are some of the most reliable Christian antagonists. They are scattered across the New Testament both as direct antagonists in the gospels and as impetus for all sorts of “Judaizing” that Paul confronts in his letters. Everyone knows the Pharisees (with a few important exceptions like Nicodemus) are bad guys. Even the good ones are not very good – Nicodemus seems like a bit of a wimp and the Pharisees who recognize Jesus’ status after his resurrection do have the resurrection in the rear-view mirror before they put everything together. Given all of this I think it’s time to defend the Pharisees.
Why? The main answer is that the Pharisees have something to teach us. Right now the way the Pharisees function for most Christians is merely as scapegoats. Normally they are “works righteousness” scapegoats (although this is probably not all that historically accurate) who serve to remind us that bad people believe in works instead of faith. Because we don’t do that we aren’t like the Pharisees. Done! Check one off the list, problem avoided.
Here’s where this all goes wrong: the Pharisees actually make perfect sense. A while ago I was leading the discussions for a Bible Study and we were working our way chronologically through the Bible. After making the study read a bit of Maccabees to keep them abreast of what was going on in Israel (and in the religious sentiments of Israel) between the end of Malachi and the beginning of the gospels, I gave them a quiz. They had to answer each question based solely on Old Testament material. At the end I revealed the trick: the quiz was actually a way to determine what major religious movement you would have belonged to in the first century. I had a Bible Study full of Pharisees. The only exception was a die-hard Zealot1 but she was hardly an exception since most of the Pharisees leaned her way!
That’s the problem. The Pharisees aren’t making some huge, glaring, 50-foot-tall-neon-sign-warning-against-it mistake. Perhaps they are doing that in caricature but the actual Pharisees were making a common-sense inference from the information available. Israel was in rough shape. Israel had gotten there by breaking the Sinai covenant. Careful and studious obedience to that covenant might be a way for Israel to signal to God that they were truly repentant. Of course, in the common caricature this makes the Pharisees “works-righteous”, hoping that by careful Torah-obedience (and more – obedience to a system that explained how to do Torah down to the last particular) they could earn salvation. However, in reality what we know about the Pharisees makes this distinction extremely fine hair-splitting. What makes a modern Protestant (Luther’s condemnation of “works” ringing in his or her ears) justified by faith when that same person also carefully obeys Christ’s commands? How can this be separated from the Pharisees? The answer, of course, is to make up some inner dialogue for the Pharisees of which we have no actual evidence, a dialogue in which the Pharisees believe that if they stack up enough works then they get salvation as an earned reward. This can then be pitted against an internal Christian dialogue of gratitude. However, the inner dialogue of the Pharisee is made up. The actual evidence we have makes it extremely hard to make the call. Did the Pharisees believe they could earn salvation2? Did they believe that they could work hard to show God they were serious and that He would bless them with salvation? Did they believe that if they obeyed Torah carefully and scrupulously out of gratitude that out of all the nations in the world God had chosen them to receive His covenant He might eventually bless them further with salvation? Telling these apart even in modern people sitting across the table from us would be hard. Doing so at such a great remove is much harder3.
The problem with making the Pharisees strawmen to knock down (in order to indirectly attack pre-Reformation Catholicism if you’re wondering about the origins of all of this) is that we miss what the Pharisees really have to teach us. The Pharisees really teach us something about how easy it is to get it wrong. How you can study and debate and still lose sight of the beating heart of God in the text. How, as John’s gospel show clearly, one can be so sure of one’s reconstruction of how God is going to act that when someone starts walking around doing works that can only be from God you can’t see anything except their disagreement with your rules. The fact that we use the word “rules” here doesn’t make this legalism. The rules are the rules for an intellectual system. If you came to me to explain to me about a new device you were going to build that assumed that gravity stopped existing for an object painted the right shade of green then I’d reject your idea. I’d do so on the basis of rules – the rules of physics as I understand them. When the Pharisees rejected Jesus on the basis of rules, they rejected Jesus on the basis of actual legal rules but also ideological rules that had already established the extreme importance of the other rules. Oddly, many of the people in my life who like to write the Pharisees off as mere legalists the most frequently are also people who like to point out how Jesus fulfilled every detail of the Law. Somehow they have reached part of the Pharisees’ conclusion, that the Law is extremely important, but dismissed the Pharisees for reaching the same conclusion4. If it really was important for Jesus to get the Law right then it was important for him to get it right – you can’t waffle and insist that it was important to get right except when the Pharisees catch Jesus doing something that seems out of line with the Law and have an issue with it.
Indeed, one of the most mocked aspects of the Pharisees, their extremely detailed rules, might be one of the best proofs that we should be careful about mocking them. If one actually believed that one could earn salvation by stacking up good works one might adopt a rather economical cost-benefit analysis to works. Walk too far on the Sabbath? Well, that’s ten demerits but if you do so to meet your obligation to attend a festival at the Temple then the benefit is greater than the cost and you should do it anyway. Instead, we see a scrupulousness that suggests not that the Pharisees were hoping that a large enough pile of works could earn salvation but that by treating the Law as extremely holy, refusing to break even the most trivial part of it, they could begin to enter into a correct relationship with God.
All of this points to the real problem the Pharisees have: they have studied carefully and worked out a very reasonable system that makes sense out of the evidence they have. They have thought carefully about Israel’s covenant obligations, debated extensively about how one lives them out in a first-century world that is ruled by non-Israelites, and decided on a cautiously strict set of safeguards because, after all, the Law is holy, written by the hand of God. They have engaged in a large-scale effort to win others to their side and to pressure those who are far outside what they consider to be acceptable behavior to change. At some point one of those people begins to do great miracles and expound an alternative view of God’s plans. He’s not the first to claim to do miracles or to have alternate interpretations of Torah but when the Pharisees condemn him they miss the boat. They see God’s salvation, check their doctrinal statements and political positions5 and declare God’s anointed to be a lawbreaker under God’s wrath.
That’s the horrifying thing about the Pharisees: they do something that would be easy for any of us to do. The most studious of us risk falling into this trap quite easily but so do those of us with just a few simple markers of who is in and who is out. In some sense the fault of the Pharisees is mere laxness. They worked out how everything was supposed to go and then stopped working it out and just started following the plan they’d laid out. Somewhere in there they missed a chance to revisit some assumptions and realize they’d gone wrong. It’s the sort of thing we do all the time. That’s the real lesson the Pharisees. It’s not that they did something clearly wrong and stand across a canyon from us for us to throw rocks of disdain at, it’s that they made the sort of mistake we make every day, a mistake of overconfidence in our ability to figure things out (perhaps the sort of mistake our world even trains us to favor), and ended up as the classic antagonists of Christianity.
Perhaps an anachronism. I used the term to encompass any of the various movements that advocated the violent overthrow of Rome and the wholesale slaughter of Torah-breakers to show God how serious Israel was about Him and His commands.
 Salvation, mind you, meaning something like “the deliverance of corporate Israel by the Messiah” without a great deal of reference to individual post-death status.
 And requires a great deal more evidence than the New Testament. The writings of Josephus, Philo, Qumran, and the rabbis all shed various sorts of indirect light on the Pharisees but even then we lack some sort of official extended treatise from the Pharisees about the mechanics of salvation.
 There’s also this extremely weird thing going on where Jesus apparently only has to get the Law right once and then it disappears much as how if I manage not to murder someone today the law against murder ceases to exist tomorrow.
 Which aren’t always clearly separable in first-century Judea.
Five articles ago in this series, I promised that I would take the odd avoidance of Messianic prophecy in the gospel of John and bring it around to the sort of thing often called “application”1. Here it is.
In John it is implicit and not explicit signs that mark who Jesus is and how he fits into the story of God’s people. The explicit signs – the prophecy – are largely avoided. Jesus evades direct questions about these issues and instead points to the signs, the miracles, as proof of who he is. These signs are not explicit (generally) though – they are rarely things that the Messiah was unarguably supposed to do. Instead, they are things that are in the character of God. Some of the most crucial points for this idea come about when Jesus does a sign that also breaks a portion of oral Torah (or an interpretation of the Torah)2. Here an implicit sign (the sign) is contradicted by an explicit sign (Jesus acting like a Torah-violator).
Two of these incidents serve our purposes well. Both involve Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath. In the first, John 5, Jesus heals a paralyzed man. In the second, John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind. In both cases people get angry with Jesus for breaking the Sabbath. In both cases Jesus argues the same way: by claiming that God is working on the Sabbath and that he (Jesus) is correct in doing God’s works during the Sabbath because of this. Elsewhere, in John 7:21-24 this case is made with an explicit link to the Law: the Law itself allows the Sabbath to be “broken” to make sure that an Israelite male is circumcised at the correct time. Therefore, the Sabbath is not forever inviolate but must “move aside” for God’s purposes. Specifically, Jesus asks why healing a whole person (instead of merely circumcising someone) should be prohibited. He then tells the crowd to judge correctly.
A similar tack is taken by the man born blind in John 9. (The paralytic of John 5 is not nearly as sympathetic a character and rats Jesus out to the Pharisees immediately.) The Pharisees begin by asserting that they know Jesus is a sinner. The man born blind counters (after several lines of dialogue) by asserting the opposite: the starting point must be that Jesus is doing God’s work because God obviously listens to him. The Pharisees “win” the confrontation by expelling the man from their company (and probably the synagogue as well but the wording is somewhat unclear). However, this method of winning shows that they have no good response.
So why does this matter? None of this is exactly new material after five articles on Messianic prophecy. I think it matters because we’d rather have Jesus be up front. We’d rather have Jesus walk through some check lists. We sometimes feel that Jesus in John is being mean making people do all this thinking about answers when he could just give them the answers they wanted. I believe that it would be 1) impossible for Jesus to give these answers in a useful way and 2) that wishing that he would shows an incorrect focus for faith.
Jesus cannot give a straight answer to the questions he is being asked because the questions come pre-loaded. Much like the classic trap questions, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” the questions Jesus is asked cannot be answered in a straight-forward manner without agreeing to something that is incorrect. “Are you the Messiah?” for Jesus’ listeners means a whole number of things, only a few of which are true (that Jesus is God’s anointed, the heir of David, who brings cleansing and salvation to Israel). Many Messianic expectations are wrong and for Jesus to answer that he was the Messiah would be to answer in the affirmative to such statements as, “Do you intend to overthrow the Romans? Will you conquer most/all of the known world? Will you reign as King in Zion?”
The tricky thing is that Jesus will do all of these things too, but in a different way – he will reign as king, he will conquer the world, Rome will bow its knee to him, but none of these will come about in a this-worldly swords-stuck-in-bodies manner. The only way to get people to the point where they need to be is to get them to rethink their assumptions. It is impossible to say, “I am the Messiah but I will not do X, Y, and Z.” That amounts to saying, “I’m the Messiah but I’m not.” Which part do you believe? However, when someone (like the man born blind) works out that whoever this man is he is sent by God in great power then Jesus can say, “I am the Messiah” (which he does) and because this person has first convinced himself that Jesus has proper Messianic credentials he believes it even when it leads to unexpected places. The disciples, too, have this experience. They cannot deny that Jesus is the Messiah (he does God’s works all over the place) but he’s not the Messiah they expected. Instead, they find themselves having to bend the idea of Messiah to make it fit around Jesus3. However, if Jesus merely said, ‘I’m the Messiah,” to people who were not convinced of this or something like this then there would not be enough strength of belief to bend the idea of Messiah to fit Jesus. It’s only those who have a problem that can only be fixed by deciding or realizing that Jesus is the Messiah who have the intellectual leverage to reshape their ideas about what it is to be a Messiah. Jesus, then, is trying to create this problem by doing signs that demand that people figure out who he is while simultaneously refusing to directly answer that question.
This whole issue also shows an incorrect focus for faith. Why didn’t Jesus just give them the facts so they could go about the important stuff like obedience and belief? Why did Jesus make them work out what God was doing? I believe that part of John, one of the really critical parts of John for “application” is just this: Jesus expects us to pay attention and follow along. Jesus wants us to ask what God is doing and stay engaged. The people who come by Jesus in John to see off-handedly whether he is the Messiah leave with no good answers. The people who want to see God’s will done are surprised but find the Messiah.
Christians of all flavors have expectations about what God will do. So did the first-century Jews who Jesus walked amongst. Those that rejected him had some of the strongest expectations. The application of John seems very simple intellectually but very hard in practice: sometimes God will do what you don’t expect. Pay attention to His will, to His character, to His demonstrated ways or you may find yourself on the wrong end of things. Sometimes what you are sure of will get bent in half by God’s power. Be ready, watch for God’s action, and know what that looks like.
 The primary problem with this term is that it suggests either that large parts of the Bible cannot be applied to anyone’s life or that the Bible should be read largely to process it down to small chunks called “application”.
 I use the term “oral Torah” here to refer to the large body of teaching about how to apply Torah to one’s first-century life. Much of this was widely agreed upon but some points were contended.
 I believe that this is also how Paul gets his theology.
Imagine that in the far future the modern world is being excavated as part of an archeological dig by pacifist aliens. It is important that these aliens are not merely personally pacifist but belong to a species that cannot fathom the motives of a warlike species. Furthermore, the first structures these aliens excavate are parts of a military base. Needless to say these aliens will be horrified by human history. Within short order it will be impossible for any alien writer to comment on humans without using the words “warlike”, “savage”, or “violent”. This difference will assume paramount importance above all others and will become the lens through which this alien culture understands our culture. When they first uncover a minivan they will reconstruct it as a troop-carrier designed to crush enemies under its tires. Squirt guns will be envisioned as acid-sprayers. Gardening implements will be seen as slashing and stabbing weapons.
In some sense these aliens are not entirely wrong. Humans are more warlike than these hypothetical aliens are. The aliens really did uncover weapons and both plans for and records of war in their first excavations. Even when they are wrong they are not always entirely wrong. Agricultural implements have been re-purposed as weapons for peasant armies for centuries and squirt guns do imitate real guns in some ways. So what will tell these aliens that they have missed the mark? Design, probably. A squirt gun full of acid will drip on your own hand before it sprays an enemy. A minivan could be used to deliberately run people over but there are dozens of changes that one would make to a minivan if one intended to use it for that purpose. When peasant armies have fought with agricultural implements they have inevitably first fixed some of their shortcomings.
I use this metaphor to illustrate a problem we have with the Bible. When we come to the Bible we are often surprised by one of the key differences between it and our ordinary life – the supernatural occurrences. We tend to read these “out front” in the text and filter our understanding of the Bible through the lens of “the Bible is a book about supernatural things”. Like our hypothetical aliens this can lead us to miss the mark. Like our hypothetical aliens it is worth testing our reconstructions to see whether they really make sense.
One of the odder tests I have conducted was reading parts of the Book of Mormon. I was challenged to do so by a Mormon friend1 and I got a number of books into it (like the Bible, the Book of Mormon is itself divided into books) before giving up. While my Mormon friends assure me that the style of the Book of Mormon is one of the proofs that it is genuine, the style was one of the things that convinced me that it was not. The style of prophecy, especially, felt odd to me. Parts of the prophecies rendered in various parts of the Book of Mormon are identical to sections of Old Testament prophecies. However, when differences are noticeable they are often such as to make the prophecies more specific and easily verifiable. For instance, prophecies in various books name Mary and Jesus, make note of Nazareth (which would have saved Jesus’ audience in parts of John a lot of trouble), and give dates in relatively simple (if slightly imprecise) language. I have trouble believing that anyone could have put together all that information (combined with the Old Testament prophecies which are largely repeated in the Book of Mormon) and not been able to correctly identify the Messiah with a great degree of certainty. This prompts a natural question: why isn’t the Old Testament written like that?
If one can apparently design a better set of prophecies of the Messiah then why are the ones in the Old Testament so low-quality? One option is to accept that they are low-quality and abandon orthodox Christianity. The other option is to insist that they are not but instead that we have been understanding their purpose wrongly. Just as our hypothetical aliens find that minivans make a lot more sense as people-carriers than battle-wagons, we might find that Old Testament prophecy works better if we revisit our assumptions about how it works.
The simple model of prophecy in general is that it serves two purposes: first, it alerts us to God’s work when it happens in the future by preparing us for specific signs that will mark it. Second, it is an obviously-supernatural event that bolsters our general belief in God. This second usage is, incidentally, entirely anachronistic. It required the Enlightenment to divide the world into our modern categories of natural and supernatural. The first readers of Isaiah were far less interested in whether the prophecies they received were explainable by rules of nature (that they often were not all that interested in knowing) or whether they required a divine intervention into the natural order than they were in what these prophecies said about their fate.
So what is prophecy for? Why should it be so rarely specific? My suggestion is (I hope obviously by now) that prophecy functions as a way to discuss God’s overarching plans. You find yourself at point X in the story and prophecy reminds you of the story. Where are you going next? Where did you come from? What choices should you make?
Simply put, prophecy is for the people who hear it. In the simpler view of prophecy the original audience of a prophecy should put it on a shelf and check it every year, or in some cases stick it in a box marked “open in four centuries” because the prophecy isn’t for them, at least not yet. In my view prophecy serves immediately to locate the audience within the cosmic story of God’s work. It may also provide hope later down the line as others remember that God has promised to work salvation for His people but prophecy is not to be put on a shelf and checked occasionally.
This is the major point I am making with all of these articles about prophecy: our standard cultural idea of what prophecy is allows us to ignore God 99% of the time. Under the simple model we can imagine devout Jews in 96 BC picking up their prophecy list, checking some dates, and putting the list away for their grandchildren to check. Instead, what we see in the first century is that many devout Jews were constantly asking the question, “Is now the time? Is this revolutionary calling for war on Rome the Messiah? Does this rabbi know what we must do to turn God’s wrath aside and bring about redemption?” This reading of prophecy, one that I believe both Matthew and John engage in, is very much alive. When a Messianic claimant comes along then one must not merely check a list but ask, “Does this person act in a manner consistent with the God Who gave us these words?” (Interestingly, in John I believe that Jesus deliberately breaks some Messianic expectations by showing that he meets this second criterion while remaining silent on whether he meets some of the clearer ones.)
It is easy for us to see prophecy as a way to disengage from God’s work. “Oh good, here’s a script for the play – nice, I can take a fifteen minute nap, I’m not on until Act II.” Instead, I think prophecy is about more serious engagement with God’s actions and character.
 This is a standard evangelistic technique for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) who generally claim that reading the Book of Mormon prayerfully and with an open mind will result in conversion. When reading the book does not produce a conversion the response is generally to suggest that the reader did not approach the project with an open mind which is, of course, impossible to prove either way.
I hope and suspect that my last few articles about Messianic prophecy have made what is often seen as a simple subject (God thoughtfully throws out a few divine predictions so that we can confirm His later actions and possibly His miracle-working status) a much more complex one. What I want to do here is revisit both John’s avoidance of Messianic prophecy and Matthew’s interesting use of it and use these to discuss the general topic of the use of prophecy in the New Testament.
Let’s start with Matthew. My proposal (which I will not recap here for reasons of space) differs from the “standard” evangelical version in part because it changes how Matthew the author approaches the use of prophecy in his gospel. Now, Matthew the author (as opposed to Matthew the scribe taking God’s dictation) isn’t always very popular in evangelical circles but it’s pretty hard to deny his existence. In my model one not only needs to acknowledge Matthew the author but also understand Matthew’s broad narrative aims. Failure to do so lessens or distorts the impact of the prophecies he cites.
This is in contrast to a simpler (and common) reading in which Matthew may or may not be doing something with the birth narrative (in terms of laying groundwork for his larger narrative aims) but he is approaching prophecy in a much more straightforward fashion: whenever he hits a fulfilled prophecy he states it whether or not it fits with the surrounding material. As I said in an earlier article I feel like this creates a real problem because sometimes this means that Matthew is citing prophecies as being fulfilled when the fulfillment doesn’t seem to match the prophecy.
Another way to state this would be to say that the simpler reading uses prophecy like an identification card: it exists to confirm that a particular action or person comes from God. My reading holds that Matthew is using references to prophecy to show how Jesus fits within the larger story of Israel. While a lot of Christians (especially Protestants) are willing to believe that Jesus is only barely part of the same story as the Old Testament and that he represents a rebooting of the salvific plan under new terms, this is almost certainly not acceptable to Matthew’s audience who wants to know the opposite – how is it that this strange preacher is actually a Messiah who is the proper capstone of Israel’s history? Indeed, Matthew probably faces resistance on the grounds that claiming that Jesus is the Messiah does require a “rebooting” model of salvation and so he is interested in showing how this is not true.
What this assumes is that narrative is important. Not only does Matthew expect his readers to be familiar with prophecy he expects them to be familiar with the arc of the story (their story) and to see Jesus (and their own belief and following of Jesus) as part of that arc. For instance, my claims about his use of Jeremiah’s prophecy about women weeping in Ramah assumes that Matthew’s readers will hear not only the similarity between this passage and the women of Bethlehem weeping for their slaughtered children but also that these same readers will recognize this as a downturn in the story that is still waiting for the reversal in which God’s people are vindicated. (And, from there, catch that this new child who escapes the Bethlehem slaughter is the instrument of that reversal.)
I believe that John is doing something similarly complex. I referred to John’s/Jesus in John’s tactic in regards to Messianic prophecy as avoidance but this is only a surface level description. Jesus is continuously engaging with Messianic prophecy in a deep way while avoiding it in a shallow one. The key to this is understanding how the signs work in John.
Like prophecy, there are two ways of viewing the signs in John. One of them is to see them as miracles that prove, through disruption of the natural order, that the miracle-worker must be in contact with a greater power. The other is to see the signs as actual signs – references to other things (backed up with power to be sure) that lead the viewer to the conclusion that God (the correct god no less) is acting in specific ways.
This second reading is widely held by careful readers of John. For instance, it has become commonplace for people to point out that when Jesus turns water into wine he turns water for ceremonial washing into wine for a party and that this is about the transformation of duty under the Law into celebration in the Kingdom of God. Similarly, Jesus references manna from heaven when he refers to feeding the 5,000 and then miraculously crosses a body of water – these are probably both Moses-miracle. (In which case we should remember that John has told us in Chapter 1 that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”.)
The key here is to link the signs to prophecy. Does Jesus in John fulfill the specific prophecy about coming from Bethlehem? If all we had was the gospel of John then we wouldn’t know. However, we would know that here is a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:151), one who opens the eyes of the blind and releases the captives (Isaiah 42:7), and even (if we pay enough attention to Jesus’ interactions with Samaritans) the one who rejoins the scattered tribes (Jeremiah 3:18 and Ezekiel 37:19 among many, many others). The last prophecy on my short list here illustrates the larger trend: there are many things that are not exceptionally specific that appear in the prophetic message that are part of the hope for the age to come. Of course the God Who made called the nations that became Israel and Judah would have a plan to redeem all of His people. While the prophets promise this specifically at times it would also be against the entire prophetic narrative, the whole story of things being set right, if this did not happen.
What Jesus engages with constantly is this sense of narrative. The Law and the Prophets are not merely a grab-bag of supernatural predictions but are part of a story about God Whose character can be discerned by how He acts. When, for instance, Jesus is accused of working on the Sabbath he defends himself by saying, rather cryptically, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For those with ears to hear, the message is clear: God works good even on the day of rest and so when Jesus stops to heal a man on the Sabbath he is not violating God’s Law but rather doing God’s work (healing) as God Himself does. Those who wish to see God’s will as their own but with more firepower were, of course, angry with Jesus. Those who wanted God’s will found it hard to deny that Jesus was doing what God would even if he was doing so in a confusing manner.
In fact, this also makes clear one of Jesus’ responses to the direct question of whether he is the Messiah: “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.” In other words, “If you were paying any attention to how God acts you wouldn’t have this question. What confuses you is that you had an agenda for God and here I am wielding God’s power but not in the way you wanted and so you’re unhappy.”
Obviously this requires a much more careful reading of prophecy than if Jesus had (in John) mostly spoken of birthplaces and specific actions to be fulfilled. But that is probably the point – while it would be convenient if one needed merely to carry around a list if prophecies and check once every few years to see if they had been fulfilled, this would not connect you to God in any way. Forcing you to understand what God intends to do does connect you to God though. While I will expand upon this in the next article it’s worth bringing this up to conclude this article as well: the complex way of handling prophecy produces a stronger faith through better knowledge of God than the simple way.
 In context this verse appears to mostly mean “a prophet, like I am a prophet” but there is ample evidence that by the first century the verse was read with Messianic connotations.