Jesus the Cornerstone

BY: SARAH CHO

Did the resurrection happen? I don’t know. But if it did, how much should our understanding of the Old Testament affect that of the resurrection? I am currently questioning both the literal understanding of the Old Testament and the validity of the resurrection. My changing view of the Old Testament has served to expand my understanding of how the resurrection story has given significance to this text, and how this esteemed text has in turn been used to make sense of the resurrection, a counterintuitive story that has against all odds survived and shaped history. And as much as there is fear that the resurrection never happened, there continues in me a resilient hope that the resurrection is, against the dull draperies of human existence, a greater miracle and stimulus for shalom than I had previously imagined.

When I was taking Religious Studies courses as an undergraduate student at Berkeley, doubt seethed naturally, and I did my best to quell it by avoiding the most difficult questions and applying apologetics to my studies. But sometimes doubt boils and permanently changes everything, as is my case now. Granted I, a laywoman trying to identify “Truth” through a cytoplasm of cultural ideologies and religions, am as influenced by societal structures and assumptions as I am freed from them in my search for Truth, or perhaps merely for its existence. But I also know I am not the only one to embark on this journey, and the camaraderie of strays gives me hope that this journey of what seems to be comprised of mostly loss is actually worthwhile.

So how did I go from being a prospective evangelical seminary student to doubting the divine authority of Scripture on which traditional Protestantism hinges its existence? It began with an assertion by historian Diarmaid MacCulloch stating that the word ‘habiru,’ from which the word ‘Hebrew’ is derived, appeared in a variety of ancient sources from Egypt to Mesopotamia, and that the ‘habiru’ references seemed to concern a social rather than an ethnic grouping of uprooted people.1 Having taken classes in religious studies and Jewish studies in particular, such an assertion was not new to me at the time of the reading. What was new was that I decided to keep reading despite its contrariness to my own belief that Israel originated with its progenitor Jacob as an ethnic nation.

Perhaps it would have done well for me to listen to the sage’s admonition to his student to “keep [his] heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23, NRSV). Fueled by a curiosity for a mainstream overview of Christianity’s history, however, I waived this warning for a couple hundred more pages and annotated the columns with alarm-cloaked questions: Does the appearance of multiple names for God, some of which were used by neighboring nations, mean that God as portrayed in Scripture was just the combination of gods from ancient cultures? Was the true reason for the compilation and emendation of the Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures) political in its attempt to justify and save Israel’s national identity? Is Genesis to be viewed as an ancient national myth, not unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey to the Greeks, rather than as a universal historical account of mankind?

I was not able to find answers to these questions, but I had begun to consider them as legitimate questions that could potentially flounder into pathetic shambles the episteme through which I breathed and operated. In my search for a way to reconcile these findings to the traditional view of the divine inspiration of Scripture, I turned to Peter Enns, a biblical scholar who engages such questions. In 2008, Enns was suspended from a tenure position at a conservative evangelical seminary for attempting to answer them through his book Inspiration and Incarnation. For him, “the human marks of the Bible are everywhere, thoroughly integrated into the nature of Scripture itself.”2 To explain these marks away rather than try to understand and integrate them into our understanding of God would be fatal to Christianity. Though he sees these human marks, Enns interprets Scripture through the lens of the divisive historical event of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a common truth for evangelical Protestant denominations. Enns acknowledges the legitimacy of much of the historical findings that have emerged since the rise of biblical archeology and scholarship in the nineteenth century, but he also highlights the centrality of the resurrection as the starting point for understanding Jesus’s revelations about himself, God and Scripture, and thus our identity and purpose in this world. The resurrection, rather than being nullified because of the humanness of Scripture, makes possible a human document to also be divinely inspired.

Have so many evangelicals misconstrued the teachings of Jesus by stripping them of the context in which he lived and ministered? Faith in the resurrection, a bizarre contradiction to sensuous experience, should serve as an impetus for humility in trying to understand his teachings in light of the historical discoveries of scholarship. It should ungird Christianity of defensiveness and fear, and open up opportunities for discussion instead. But the suspension of Peter Enns is one illustration that American evangelicals still have a long way to go.

As I came to question my understanding and interpretation of Scripture that I had believed my whole life, I began to take interest in the topic of evolution. Francis Collins3 had spoken at UC Berkeley’s Veritas Forum in 2008 and had only reinforced my vigilance against non-literal interpretations of Scripture. The creation account especially seemed to jeopardize other essential portions of the Bible which could then, by precedence, also be taken as non-literal. In The Language of God, Collins touches upon this problem but leaves much of the debate to the theologians. He spends a greater portion of the book presenting scientific evidence for evolution and philosophical justifications for the existence of God, including the mathematical principles and order in creation.4 Recalling Galileo’s arguments for scientific exploration even when traditional beliefs of Earth’s central positioning in the universe were being challenged, Collins extorts believers to see merit in contradictions to tradition, scientists to see the finitude of science, and seekers to continue swimming through the oftentimes haranguing ideological currents of the day. Collins’s arguments for the existence of God are compelling, but what is troubling is the less explicated assumption that the Genesis creation account need not be historical or literal in the modern sense.

For if indeed the creation story was poetical, or mythical if you will, what was I to make of the parting of the Red Sea and the ten plagues? Could not these stories also be myths, mere legends? At this point I was already tinkering with some unorthodox thoughts, so I decided to consult a modern biblical scholar for insight to this matter. James Kugel, caught between two irreconcilable worlds of modern biblical scholarship and orthodox Judaism, both mystifies and demystifies Scripture by reinforcing the Scriptures’ continued significance through their preservation and interpretation, and by explaining Scripture as a product of ancient Jewish interpreters that emerged after Jerusalem’s Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE, and not of those who originally documented and consolidated oral traditions across generational differences. As Kugel puts it, “it was truly out of the work of these interpreters that the canonized Bible emerged, and without it, one might well doubt if the Bible ever could have come to occupy the central place that it did within Judaism and Christianity.”5

As for Kugel, he admits that “while [he] could not be involved in a religion that was entirely a human artifact”, it would suffice for him for Scripture to be the “fleshing out of that primal commandment” given by God in Exodus and Deuteronomy to his people to do his bidding and become his people.6 Though Kugel admits the irreconcilability of Judaism to modern biblical scholarship, he preserves his orthodox Jewish identity by submitting to the pious traditions of the ancient Jewish interpreters. “Happy the reader who can open the Bible today and still understand it as it was understood by those who first proclaimed it the Bible,” he writes, and seems to wish himself as such despite his lifelong preoccupation with the empirical evidences of Scripture’s formation.7

The idea that aspects of present interpretative methods are offshoots of postexilic Jewish interpreters, and not an ancient development as is supposed by Scripture itself, may be unsettling, if not devastating, for an evangelical Christian who takes the stories of the Old Testament as literal truth. On the other hand, to deny the literalness of the Old Testament would be to jeopardize the inerrancy of Scripture, a foundational doctrine of many evangelical denominations. So what are Christians to make of such scholarship? Ignore it because it is threatening to fundamental Christian beliefs by which evangelicalism thrives? Or rise above the reformed rallies of our Protestant fathers and seek to understand the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in light of how Scripture is now being reconstructed by relevant historical, archaeological and scientific evidences?

For Christians who receive with faith the proclamation of the resurrection, much hinges on the understanding of the authority of Scripture. Christian denominations find innumerable reasons under the banner of inerrancy to disagree in their interpretations of the nature and content of Scripture, whether on prophecy, cessation or gender roles. Yet where did this need to interpret Scripture as a book of systematic doctrines and moral guidance stem from to begin with? Is this method of interpretation that of Jesus himself, or of the writings of Jewish interpreters by whom the Bible has been made possible and by which Jesus taught his timeless truths perhaps in order to connect them to the people of his day? And if it is found that we have projected our own cultural assumptions onto the authors of the Bible, could we still believe in the supernatural incarnation of God, albeit having to understand it in an entirely different light?

The resurrection is the focal point through which these questions are answered; without belief in the resurrection, interest in the Scriptures would amount to little more than awe of its potency to transform and evolve with history. Our beliefs regarding Scripture form the narrative by which we derive our purpose, understand life and the afterlife, and base and justify our social constructs. One generation’s narrative may look as different from Jesus’s narrative as does a defendant’s from a plaintiff’s, and the results of that discrepancy could be disastrous. Thus, in order to remain as close to the actual story whose climax is arguably the crucifixion, we should consider that the polyphonic narratives within and about Scripture do not necessarily have to be understood as a single divine voice per se. Rather, they may really be as they appear to the common man: multiple voices trying to grasp and convey the presence and will of a transcendent deity – a deity who then wrote himself into the human plot through the resurrection, becoming to us “myth become fact”.8

I myself no longer know if this myth ever did become fact. But if indeed such a miracle happened and God the Other communicated to this world by becoming one of us, then the narrative of the Old Testament that leads up to it is of utmost importance and has great implications to how Christians interpret and abide by the revolutionary revelations of Jesus Christ. His life, death and resurrection would be the cornerstone to the overarching narrative of purposeful human existence that no foolproof interpretation of a fallible, however noble, human document can be. If the Church could come to understand Scripture as bearing the marks of humanity – its great social aspirations as well as its political intentions and cognitive boundaries – and consider the possibility of sola scriptura being a reactive, contextualized stance, we may presently be able to partake in building God’s kingdom of love and justice that was inaugurated by the mysterious death of Jesus of Nazareth, and thus, go beyond ideological constructs to the applicative continuation of the sacred text in our lives. We may in fact see bones come together, sinews binding, flesh rising, skin covering a world of raw wounds as the Church celebrates a myth that is and brings life where there isn’t.

1 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin Books, 2009). 53.
2 Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). 18.
3 The former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
4 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006). 93.
5 James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible (New York: Free Press, 2007). 679.
6 Ibid., 689.
7 Ibid., 688.
8 C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970). 63.

For further reading on this topic, the author recommends: Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship, by Lesslie Newbigin; The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton; and Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, by N. T. Wright.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s