How Jesus reinvented Biblical theology
“Why don’t you believe in Jesus?”
I cringed as my student challenged our classroom guest. He was the distinguished head of the regional Chabad House, a deeply devout and highly respected Jewish rabbi. Everything about him oozed spirituality, from his black suit with the fringes of his prayer shawl peeking from under the coat, to his Moses-like white beard, to the shofar he blew at the beginning of class, announcing Rosh Hashanah.
We had tried to prepare our young scholars in the art of asking good questions. While reading Chaim Potok’s powerful novel My Name is Asher Lev for our first year seminar on cultural diversity, we had arranged for the good rabbi to come. He knew Potok personally and had taught this book in other settings. As a representative of the conservative Jewish community, he understood well the world that Potok sought to portray.
Now my student wielded her weapon of words against the man, believing that she could demand that he recognize the superiority of her updated version of his ancient religion. The class tensed, knowing that worlds were colliding.
The rabbi sighed. Not in capitulation or exasperation but almost in gentle pastoral resignation, knowing that his next words could prick the bubble of her carefully constructed theological presuppositions.
“You trust the Bible, don’t you?” he asked, not specifying which Testament. Her head nodded, as did most in the room. “You believe what the prophets said about Messiah, right?” More affirmations.
“Well,” he went on, “when I read the prophets, they tell me that when Messiah comes, wars will end, and people will no longer get sick, and there will be no famine or earthquakes. Everyone will live in peace and prosper.”
“Is that true of our world?” he asked.
Another weighty pause.
“You ask me why I don’t believe in Jesus,” he continued. “I do believe in Jesus. I am quite sure that Jesus was a good Jewish man who did many fine things for those around him in his day. But if I read the Scriptures, the same ones that you read, then it is impossible for me to think that Jesus was the Messiah. The Bible itself keeps me from believing that.”
And he went on, soliciting other questions about Judaism and the practices of conservative believers in his world, and that of Potok and Asher Lev.
My mind went on too. I could not help but admire the simple beauty of his logic. My Christian teachings had always affirmed that Jesus is the Messiah, predicted by the Israelite prophets, whose coming fulfilled Old Testament divine promises.
What Jesus did not do was end war in our world, cure all diseases, wipe away famine or natural disasters or bring the nations to judgment for their crimes and rebellions. Although human cultures are ever-changing, one would be hard-pressed to say that life on planet earth was significantly different after Jesus showed up than before he came.
Can we say with confidence that Jesus is the Messiah who ushered in the eternal righteous kingdom of God, as foretold by divine revelation through Israel’s prophets? The answer to this question is at the heart of Christian theology. The two other great religions that share monotheistic perspectives with Christianity each came to different conclusions about Jesus. Jews say that Jesus was certainly a good man, a captivating and dynamic first century rabbi who did a lot of good and helped many lean into God’s ways, rather than ignoring or skirting them. Muslims agree with Jews, and say that Jesus was one of the three greatest prophets ever. In effect, they affirm the perspectives of the good rabbi in my classroom. Jesus is wonderful. We must learn from him. We must listen to him. But the world around us is the strongest testimony that he is neither divine nor the ultimate expression of God’s final declarations. Jesus came and taught and healed and prophesied. But the world did not change. The eschaton did not come. The Kingdom of God is no nearer now than it was before.
Unless. . . .
On “that day”
Unless Jesus did something that no one saw coming. Unless Jesus refused to bring in the final expression of the Kingdom of God with a single, mighty THWACK that would have destroyed the bulk of people on earth in the fiery vengeance of God’s judgment. Unless Jesus split the “Day of the Lord” into two, initiating its blessings without completing them, absorbing the first blows of divine judgment into himself rather than having the rage of heaven sear like a weapon of destruction across earth.
The prophetic “Day of the Lord” theology is at the centre of this conundrum. Prophets began to emerge on Israel’s scene shortly after its settlement in Canaan. At first, they functioned as lingering echoes of Moses’ booming voice, now fading. Increasingly the prophets heard Yahweh saying that things were getting so bad, both within Israel and among the nations of her world, that only a direct divine intrusion could set things right again. This impending divine visitation became known as the great and terrible “Day of the Lord.”
Three major things would happen when Yahweh arrived on that “day:” catastrophic judgment meted upon all the nations of earth, including Israel/Judah; a remnant of Israel spared; and a new and vibrant messianic age begun. It might take a direct intervention of God into human history to bring about, but when it happened, everything would be set right. On this note the Old Testament closes. The Creator remains on a mission to recover the lost citizens of the kingdom of heaven, as well as renew the painfully twisted elements of nature.
Love came down
Seemingly against all odds, what everyone in the covenant community anticipated did happen! Yahweh finally did show up, but he came as a weak child rather than in the guise of a mighty warrior.
Moreover, the “Day of the Lord” itself was split in two, so that the beginnings of messianic-age blessings arrived in whispers, long before the warning trumpets of judgment would be sounded.
Could it be that the very evidence my rabbi friend put forward to prove that Jesus is not the Messiah, read in another light, might be the testimony that he is precisely the Messiah?! It is clear from John’s identification of Jesus, Jesus’ own words to his disciples and the reflections of the apostles on the meaning of Jesus’ coming, that all believed the “Day of the Lord” had arrived in the person of Jesus. As with persecutor-Saul turned chief-gospel-witness-Paul, this shift is not easy to comprehend.
Yet this new understanding of Jesus’ coming is at the heart of Christian testimony. What makes Christianity distinct from Judaism is the belief that the Messiah and the “Day of the Lord” have come in the person of Jesus. What distinguishes Christianity from Islam is the same, along with the proviso that all necessary revelation was culminated in Jesus.
The concept of Christian biblical theology is rooted in this. Although biblical theology – the investigation of the scriptures that speak authoritatively into the faith community – is foundational for systematic theology, their relationship with one another has often been inverted. Systematic theology has come to be viewed as the official voice of the church, with biblical theology useful only for finding texts to support its tenets.
This reduction of biblical theology’s role in Christianity’s public testimonies has led to further shifts in the use and understanding of the Bible. First, the New Testament superseded the Old Testament in importance and significance. While the original Christians studied the Hebrew Scriptures (or their Septuagint Greek translation) as they confirmed the preaching of the apostles, within a generation there were Christian communities, like the Marcionites and the Gnostics, which would simply erase the Jewish Bible from Christian consideration.
Second, systematic theology often shifted the relationship between Old and New Testaments strongly in favour of the latter, and consciously against the former. The gospels and apostolic writings became the very word of God, while the Old Testament contained documents that espoused “law” which could only be overcome through Jesus, or “context” that informed Christians about the world into which Jesus came, or “prophesy” that had little meaning for Israel and would only become useful in confirming what Christian systematic theologians were saying about Jesus.
Third, as biblical theology split into “Old Testament Theology” and “New Testament Theology,” the tools of higher criticism silenced the voice of God in the former, and muted it in the latter. The result has splintered Christian use of the Bible as its singular source of identity and a unified whole, and diminished any presumed common and unique message. Now Christianity is about Jesus, apart from the Old Testament, except for quaint cultural practices that can only be ferreted out by Jewish scholars. Jesus becomes a larger-than-life action figure whose teachings can be interpreted in almost any way, and whose impact is reduced to merely personal and exemplary iconism, rather than transformative and cosmological perspective-shaping.
“Why don’t you believe in Jesus?” Is Jesus the Messiah, foretold by Israel’s prophets? The answer depends on how the Hebrew Bible’s Day of the Lord is understood, and whether Jesus is a failed apocalyptic Jewish rabbi or the genius divine Christ who split the anticipated divine interruption into our history in two, as an act of deep care and blessing for the human race.