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How Do You Read the Bible? (part 1)

Post Title: Seeing the Big Picture

In a very preliminary way, I want to share something extremely interesting and profoundly significant to our Christian worldview and to the times in which we live. But you need to know that I require something of you which, typically, is not something Christians are expected to do. I want you to think. The kind of biblical teaching that leads to repentance, change, and ultimately life—demands that you think for yourself.

The Jewish view of Jesus (Yeshua) was that Scripture is both a gift and a challenge. The Word of God is something to actively engage, to wrestle with. "'Come, let us discuss (reason, argue) this,' says the LORD," to Isaiah. He loves a good discussion, a healthy argument for the sake of heaven.

Please listen to what is on my heart and understand that because this breaks some new ground, it is somewhat provocative. But I share it because it touches upon points that are vitally important to you and me, with respect to how we relate to God and to our life as disciples of Jesus in the world.

That introduction is quite a build-up, isn't it? I hope you're not disappointed because what I'm going to address is not really something mysterious. I want us to consider the way we read the Bible, from cover to cover. What is the relationship of the first testament to the second testament?

I want to discuss what scholars call our biblical narrative, the model that informs how the sacred texts fit together in our thinking.

When you are dealing with any subject, you always have certain mental structures in place for dealing with the subject. Whether you're talking about an engineering problem, a medical problem, a philosophical problem, or whatever, you have certain ways that you approach a subject to get a handle on it.

By way of illustration, it's like a jigsaw puzzle. You need to know the big picture before you can find out where all the little pieces go. You'd be in big trouble if somebody dumped a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle on the table and didn't show you the picture of what it's supposed to look like when it's finished.

Do you see what I'm saying? You look at the big picture, you follow the model and fit the pieces together into a coherent picture.

As early as the 2nd century the question, "How do we read the Bible?" had become a very important issue for the Christian movement. Keep in mind that the church, by the 2nd century, was already becoming predominantly Gentile in its composition, as opposed to its exclusively Jewish inception with a Jewish Messiah, apostles, and followers.

By the middle part of the 2nd century, it had largely become a Gentile enterprise, with a minority of Jews. We could say it this way, the church at this time was steadily losing connection with its covenant roots, its Jewish roots. And it was facing three major threats to the integrity of its witness and to the understanding of its scriptures.

Those three threats were from pagans, Jews, and Gnostics. The church was in the process of defining itself, vis-a-vis the Jews and their claims about Scripture and Messiah, vis-a-vis the pagans, and vis-a-vis the Gnostics, who were like a cancer that attached itself to the host body, Christianity, trying to pervert their teachings.

The patristic fathers responded. I am speaking particularly of two of the most influential in the 2nd century, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.

  • With respect to the Jews, they argued that the God of Israel had in fact decisively acted in and through the Jewish Messiah Jesus, making salvation available to all of mankind.

  • With respect to the pagan world, they had to argue that there was but one God, not many gods. And that that one God was indeed the God of Israel, the God of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures), who offered salvation through Jesus to all.

  • With respect to the Gnostics, they faced several challenges. At the root, the Gnostics claimed that the father of Jesus Christ was not the same as the God of Israel. They argued that he was a demiurge, a lower level craftsman or builder who enslaved humanity by his onerous law. This teaching was very active in the church in the early centuries (and in some respects as we'll see later, it is still at work in the church today).

Against the Gnostics, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus argued that quite to the contrary, the God of Israel was indeed the true God, not a lower God (a demiurge). They contended that Jesus the Messiah (Christ) was God's Son who came in the flesh. The Gnostics held to a very strict dualism between spirit and flesh, which they considered to be fallen, dirty, corrupt, material, and utterly unspiritual.

They did believe Jesus was in effect, the Son of the true God (not the lesser God of Israel). However, he came only in appearance, not in fact. He wasn't really a man, he just took on the form of a man.

Now, stay with me here. Imagine having to confront these assaults in their historical setting. The following centuries were a battle of self-definition for the church. It was a struggle of survival and supremacy over those who opposed them.

Let's take this one step further.

During the process of dealing with these issues, Justin Martyr, and then especially Irenaeus, came to understand that the relationship of the Old Testament and the New Testament could be viewed as a consistent, unified whole; that is if it was looked at in a particular way. And of course, it was very much in their interest to do so.

They needed to show that the relationship of the Hebrew Scriptures to the apostolic witness we call the New Testament was a line of continuity, not a disjunction. God did not do one thing over here and then go and do something different over here. One example of this is that they argued against the Jewish community that the Old Testament clearly prophesied the coming of Jesus. This line of reasoning showed a relationship between the first testament and the New Testament.

Are you following me on all this? They articulated—and here it gets to the crux of the matter— a big-picture pattern, a way to read the Scripture as a whole. I'm going to call this the standard narrative model. I'm using that designation because I don't know of a simpler way to make this clear. They developed a picture to look at in order to see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit into place.

This standard narrative model became the accepted paradigm and was passed down and enhanced by subsequent patristic fathers. Again, the standard narrative model presented, 1) the big biblical picture and, 2) where all the pieces fit. It became the definitive model for the Christian Church by which they read and expounded the Bible.

I imagine you're familiar with this standard narrative model of interpreting the Bible. It states that the key theme, the overriding motif from Genesis to Revelation is that of Sin and Redemption. Please don't get ahead of me. I'm not challenging the existence or importance of these biblical ideas. I simply want you to grasp that there might be another way of looking at the puzzle's big picture.

It never occurs to us that there may be a different way of seeing the Bible as a unified whole. Why? Because this way of thinking is so ingrained in us. We've all had the puzzle put together for us using a pattern that can be traced back to the western church and its emerging 2nd-century historical setting.

In light of the intrinsic Jewishness of the 1st-century kingdom movement inaugurated by Yeshua, I think—at the very least—it is profitable to identify the standard narrative model and to ask if there is a bigger picture than the one we've always looked at. I believe there is. And I believe expanding our paradigm will not take away from but rather add to our understanding and appreciation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and his saving work in Jesus of Nazareth.

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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.

Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.

Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.

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