Context and Word of God

Boy, if you don’t read one of your favorite blogs for a week you can miss something good. Take the fact that I missed a gem of a post by Rabbi Carl Kinbar on MIdrashEtc.

His launching point is a comment by Larry Hurtado, New Testament professor at the University at Edinburgh, and a well-respected scholar. Hurtado considers the two extreme positions about the Bible and its relation to the context of its time. Let me cite his words and then clarify for those who might not grasp what Hurtado is getting at:

At one end of the continuum you have extreme “liberals” and at the other end extreme “fundamentalists”. Although each regards the other as its polar opposite, I suggest that actually both extremes tacitly share the same premise: If the biblical writings are really historically conditioned they cannot be Word of God. The extreme liberal, noting that the texts are self-evidently historically conditioned, concludes that they cannot be more than historical relics. The extreme conservative, wanting the Bible to serve as scripture, desperately tries to deny or minimize their historically-conditioned nature. They share the same premise, but draw opposite conclusions from it.

In other words, as scholars and interpreters notice that the Bible exhibits characteristics from the cultural context of its time, they react in two different ways. One group reduces the scripture to mere humanity, saying its culturally bound words are simply the religious thought of the time. The other group denies the cultural context and believes that God’s Word can only be timeless, unbound, and above human expression. Put another way: minimalists see the text as simply a product of people thinking about God and fundamentalists see the text as non-humanly divine, a set of principles whose cultural ties can be ignored. Which is it? Is the Bible human and culturally conditioned or divine and about mere theology? Actually the halves add up to something more than their parts.

What does this all have to do with Messianic Judaism?

Rabbi Kinbar develops some very nice points which you ought to read at MidrashEtc (click here).

I will cite a few of his observations and briefly comment:

For example, in the 1st century C.E., Jewish communities in Galilee and Judah are not mere backdrops for the gospels; the cultures of the region pervade their thought and expression.

In other words, you cannot understand Yeshua (Jesus) without reading the gospels in light of issues of the time. He’s Jewish. He’s from a different Jewish context than we know in modern Judaism. We need to filter modern perceptions of religion, of Judaism and Christianity, and understand the issues of the time and how Yeshua interacted with them.

For Messianic Judaism, the relationship between Scripture and its historical and social contexts is also crucial to our communal and individual identity and practice as Jews. I do not mean to suggest that the Judaism of the 1st century is normative for us today. . . . The historical and social contexts, which are reflected in the texts, must be explored in order to grasp the contours and substance of the Brit Hadashah. That grasp is essential to maintain a healthy interplay of Torah, tradition, and Brit Hadashah.

In other words, just as God embraces and transforms culture from within, so must we. The Mosaic Torah assumes righteousness is possible in the Bronze Age world. The Wisdom Literature of the Bible assumes that the international phenomenon of literature has a basis in God’s creation of the world and of people. The prophetic writings assume that justice is a way of life for nations and individuals in antiquity. The apostles expect that Jewish and Roman life can be navigated by people of faith and purity and spiritual power are possible.

Messianic Jews negotiate the Jewish, Christian, and secular worlds. The Bible, by God’s own example, demonstrates that we can live within and be holy, not that we must don 17th century garb and separate ourselves (or worse, dress like biblical characters and seek that “old time religion”).

Rabbi Kinbar is saying that Jewish and Christian contexts of the last 2,000 years must be factored into Messianic Jewish practice. We cannot and need not try for some biblical culture. God is working through history and we cannot say he was only working through the revered customs of biblical times.

He’s also saying that we must read the scriptures with a foot in both worlds and realizing it is both divine and human. Check out what he has to say and make it your study for the day.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, History, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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