I really should try to turn this into a series, but homework and other obligations have prevented me from sitting down too long to write about all the weird ways in which the New Testament uses the Old. So, you’re getting my posts when you get them, and I hope for now they’re at least interesting.
I’ve had this recurring theme in my head: the way that Scripture is used by Jesus and the early church is pretty creative … and very weird, by modern evangelical standards. If Matthew had been alive today and used Isaiah 7:14 to “prove” Jesus was virgin-born, we’d say he didn’t really understand how to interpret the text. But, he made this argument two thousand years ago, the church considers it authoritative (and, for the record, so do I), and that’s why we’ve come to see Isaiah’s verse as being a messianic prophecy.
Tonight, another example occurred to me, and this one is attributed to Jesus himself (by, again, Matthew). Our Lord is confronted by the Sadducees on the matter of the Resurrection, a doctrine of which they don’t believe, unlike their counterparts, the Pharisees.
(Tangent: of all of Jesus’ enemies, he appears to have had the most in common with the Pharisees. Many Christians view the world as an “us” and “them” divide, while rarely paying attention to the fact that sometimes, the most dangerous threats of all are the teachers who confess your creed. End of tangent.)
The Sadducees pose a problem for Jesus, one that’s designed to make the prospect of a resurrection sound silly. Jesus, in turn, tells them that they don’t understand the Bible or the power of God. At this juncture, you’d expect him to point to verses in the Old Testament that sound like they’re talking about people being raised from the dead. And Jesus does appeal to a passage, but it’s not the one you’d think:
Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. … And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:23-33)
Now, the likely reason Jesus appealed to Exodus and not, say, Daniel or Ezekiel–two pretty strong contenders for having resurrection passages–is that the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Bible as Scripture. They don’t see the other books as “biblical”. For a modern-day comparison, imagine a Catholic trying to convince a Protestant that praying to the saints is biblical on the basis of what they read in 2 Maccabees. Protestants don’t consider that book “biblical” and so they won’t consider the doctrine to be Scripturally based.
So Jesus is playing on the Sadducees’ turf here, but he seems to bend a lot of interpretive rules to make the case. In what world do you read Exodus 3 and come away thinking that this is an argument in favor of resurrection or life after death? There’s nothing in the context to suggest that. God is only affirming His commitment to the agreement he made with Moses’ forefathers. Reading resurrection into this text seems, quite frankly, to be a matter of eisegesis and just bad interpretation.
But Jesus did it, so we accept it.
That’s the thing about studying the early church and the New Testament: you pretty quickly realize that the church, and even the Lord himself, are playing by a different set of rules than we do. So what now?
If anything, I think that should make us shut our mouths from time to time and realize that we are not the first ones to have this book figured out.
We also should be wary of thumbing our noses at church fathers whose interpretations of the Scriptures ranged from creative to nutty. For instance, I think that the “two swords” argument, in which the church and state are said to be two different swords for the world, is kind of ridiculous. But then, by my standards, so is appealing to that passage in Exodus to make a case for the resurrection.
I honestly don’t know where these posts and thoughts are leading me; I’m just writing as I go. But if you have anything to add or corrections to be made, the comments section is yours. In the meantime, I’m going to practice that “shutting my mouth” thing.