By Brian Knowles
n our time, it’s becoming ever more difficult to know how to be an authentic, Bible-advised, Christian. Just about every aspect of the Christian faith is under attack by someone. Satan is launching broadside after broadside against the Church. As the Church continues to take hits parts of it are crumbling.
As a Christian writer, it’s hard to know what to write about anything. Virtually every word penned is controversial to someone. For example, some will take exception to the idea I presented in the first paragraph above: that Satan is launching broadsides against the Church. Many Christians no longer believe that Satan is a literal being. To them, he is just “the personification of evil” – or a literary symbol or figure of speech.
Writing about Israel is another minefield. Hatred for Israel, or Jews, seems a near-universal phenomenon, even within parts of the Church. To write anything supportive of Israel instantly brings the anti-Semites and Israel-haters out of the woodwork.
“Fundamentalism” is under attack. Charismatic Christianity is under attack. Christian sexual morality is under attack. Christianity, the Bible, and even church buildings are under attack. The Christ (Anointed One) himself is under attack. According to Christianity Today, some 171,000 Christians per year are being murdered worldwide for their faith (2006 figures). Some estimate that as many as 70 million Christians have been martyred since the time of Christ – and most of those murders have occurred in the 20th and 21st centuries. The “spirit of antichrist” is running rampant in the earth. And you’re welcome to call me a “fundamentalist nut” for saying so. I don’t apologize for it.
Writing about Bible prophecy is, in some circles, another dead letter. Anything written on that subject is controversial. Taking the Bible literally is under attack. Not taking it literally is also under attack.
The study of the Hebrew roots of the Bible and the Church is under attack. And just about every mainstream, traditional, or fundamental Christian doctrine is under attack.
To raise one’s head in print these days is to be instantly caught in a withering crossfire of contrary opinion. It’s open season on Bible interpretation. Everyone’s an amateur theologian these days. We all have our pet ideas and doctrines – I included.
What it all comes down to for me is this: What did Jesus teach? What did it mean in its original context? How do I appropriately apply it today? A corollary is: What did his original rabbinic students (talmidim) believe, practice and teach? If I can sort out those things, then I’ll know what it means to be an authentic follower of Jesus the Anointed One. Of course I’ll have to seek God’s counsel on how to adapt those teachings to the issues of modern life.
Can we trust the New Testament?
The only way we’re going to gain access to the teachings and practices of the original Christian community is through the New Testament. Its documents are the only significant record we have of what the first Christians believed, lived, and taught.
Of course it’s true that we have no original autographs of any Biblical documents. It’s also true that the Catholic Church created the New Testament “canon.” It’s true that from the time of their writing, to the time of their final redactions, changes were made in these documents. These facts alone do not mean that we have no authentic record. We do. We can know what Jesus taught.
The late Prof. David Flusser, of Hebrew University, writes: “The early Christian accounts about Jesus are not as untrustworthy as people today often think. The first three Gospels are not only a reasonably faithful picture of Jesus as a Jew of his own time, but they even consistently retain his way of speaking about the Savior in the third person…The Jesus portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels is, therefore, the historical Jesus, not the “kerygmatic Christ,” Jesus by David Flusser, p. 20). The “Synoptic” Gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke. The word synoptic comes from the Greek synoptikos meaning “a seeing together.” The first three gospels draw from common sources.
The term “kerygmatic Christ” used by Flusser is a reference to the portrait of Christ that emerges from the preaching of the early apostles as distinct from the “historical Jesus” portrayed in the Synoptics. The word “kerygmatic” comes from the Greek kerygma meaning “proclamation.”
Put simply, when we examine the synoptic Gospels, an accurate portrait of the historical Jesus emerges. We can know what he taught, how he lived, and his place in 2nd Temple Judaism simply by studying closely these documents. The other documents in the New Covenant collection fill in the blanks. John interprets the story of Jesus theologically, not historically. Acts tells us of the beginnings of the apostolic community within Judaism – the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5) – and of the spread of the Gospel into the gentile world. It chronicles the journeys of the Apostle Paul. Other documents in the collection are letters circulated and copied among early believers. Some of them are apostolic in origin. In some instances, we have no idea who wrote them – Hebrews being a case in point. Together, these documents constitute a reliable picture or original or “primitive” Christianity.
The challenge for exegetes (those who critically interpret and explain the meaning of Scripture) is to bring those teachings forward to our time in appropriate ways for use and application in the believing community. This can be a daunting task.
Like everything else in life, the interpretation, and application, of Scripture is politicized. In other words, the process is filtered through the lenses of “interests.” It either is, or it is not, in the interests of denominations to interpret given passages one way or another. A good example of this is the issue of tithing. Within Scripture, there are a finite number of passages that relate to the subject of tithing (tenthing). How these are interpreted and applied depends on whether or not leaders wish their members to tithe.
Those of us who consume the output of scholars must be aware of denominational bias. Not all scholars are purely objective any more than all scientists are. For my money, the most helpful scholars who are good at popularizing their work for lay consumption are those associated with the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research in Jerusalem. A partial listing of some of their written works is found in the Hebrew Roots section of this web site.
At a time when all things Christian are under relentless attack by the enemy, it behooves us to remember who we are, what we believe, and above all, how Jesus expected us to live.