The Bible, 1900 years on (Questions 2)
My mother, Ursula Hall, who was a historian, wrote about St Andrew and his somewhat tenuous connection to Scotland. In an unpublished work she commented on the rapid spread of the Christian church in the decades after its founding. “These [the apostles] were the men who travelled, who preached, who wrote, who organised, who spread that message effectively, rapidly (within a generation), throughout the Roman Empire.
We have to recognise what an achievement that was. The work was done, in the first instance, by individuals, and by persuasion, not by force, not by armies (such as were to carry Islam over vast territories later).”
Being an atheist, she did not say, “This shows God’s hand in history – hallelujah”, but many of us of course would want to. The Holy Spirit in the church, and God’s enabling, led to the spread of Christianity far and wide. This is clearly implied in the Bible.
I am not a historian. But the Bible is a book, or a set of books, with many historical aspects. It claims to report historical events; it claims that certain of these events were pivotal moments in the universe; it shows people interpreting history and gives suggestions as to how to do this; it has itself affected history in undeniable ways; and it has a very interesting history itself.
It frustrates me however that we rarely seem to look at the Bible today in the light of history and actual events in the world. Sermons and Bible reading notes tend to run along the lines of “What does the Bible say?” and then “How do we work this into our lives?” without asking other questions that might seem obvious. (This is despite the fact that we are very keen on appropriating all the nice bits and promises of the Bible to ourselves, individually and as churches, when they were originally written to and for other people entirely.)
Three examples (all quotes from the RSV version):
John 17: 20-21. During Jesus’ long and wonderful prayer in the Upper Room, he says “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”
It seems probably legitimate to interpret the objects of Jesus’ prayer as all of us Christians throughout history. And so we have to conclude that Jesus, who had surely more faith than anyone else, and who knew more about the Father’s will than anyone else, prayed the most spectacularly unanswered prayer in history.
Christians are not one. Christians have spent the last 2000 years, certainly the latter thousand, establishing that they are not one, often proving their point by cutting each other into pieces.
Shouldn’t this be a major element in our theology of prayer? Is it?
Ephesians 2: 11-15. Paul says, of the Gentiles who have believed in Christ: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.
The hostility Paul means may be primarily that between Gentiles and God, not between Gentiles and Jews, but surely he means that as well. How is it possible to read this passage without horror? Before Christ, anti-semitism existed. Romans disapproved of these Jews with their one God; Jews thought themselves the uniquely chosen people. Paul says that this enmity was destroyed by the cross.
He was about as wrong as it is possible for a human being to be.
It took only a few hundred years for Christians to start persecuting the Jews, leading to the long and ghastly saga of legal restrictions, expulsions, pogroms and massacres – for centuries justified on the grounds that “the Jews had murdered Christ”, ie justified by the cross.
The ultimate act of anti-semitism, the Holocaust, was committed by a pagan tyranny. But we cannot ignore the facts that a) many churches and church-goers in Germany supported Nazism; and b) the Nazis were building on the pre-existing foundation of European anti-semitism for which surely the church must take the primary responsibility.
One cannot blame Paul for being unable to predict the future, especially a future as abominable as that. But shouldn’t his understandable inability to do so affect some of our reading of the New Testament?
Luke 1: 51-53. In the Magnificat, Mary proclaims that: “He [God] has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
It’s wonderful, and it’s not unique to Mary. The song echoes Hannah’s prayer in 1 Sam 2: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger,” and there are similar passages in the Psalms.
It’s lovely to know that that is God’s character, and of course it means that we should value the lowly and feed the hungry and not be proud. But was Mary just thinking about the Exodus (God freeing a lowly people) and her own experience (an apparently insignificant woman given an extraordinary privilege), or was she saying something about God’s actions, past, present and future, generally… and if so, where did she see this? Where do we?
The Bible was written 1900 years ago, or more. Surely it must be appropriate to look at it in the light of all the events, and all the thinking, that have happened since.
I am not a Biblical scholar. So I may be wrong.
From the PPI Blogger