Hermeneutics

We Don’t Know the Story

I’ve been writing for the past few weeks on Eastern vs. Western thinking and how we think will shape how we approach the Bible.  Two weeks ago, I shared the differences between Eastern and Western thinking.  Catch up here.  Last week, I shared some examples that the Gospel writers purposefully infused in their text that we Western thinkers probably have missed.  Catch that one here.  This week, I want to go to the recorded words of Jesus himself and examine how a more Eastern thinking approach may help us better understand our Lord, Savior, and Messiah.

Let me start off by saying that Jesus declares his deity over and over and over again in the Gospels.  Don’t kid yourself.  This is why the killed him.  They were obeying the Law of Moses.  They believed he was a blasphemer and a false prophet who claimed to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  This was an offense punishable by death.  It wasn’t because he was nice to people.  It wasn’t because he was a good teacher.  It wasn’t even because he posed a threat to the status quo inverting the social order.  Those are all things we either read into the text or are possible secondary, tertiary issues.  The primary reason Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed was because he, a man, claimed to be God.

Now if that’s the case, then why all these early heresies in the church questioning Jesus’ divinity and while these church-wide ecumenical councils to set the record straight about Jesus’ divinity?  Because, in those contexts, we are talking about a bunch of Western thinkers reading accounts written by Easterners.

Jesus declared his deity over and over and over again in the Gospels.  However, majority of the time he does it “metaphorically” (not in a surreal sense, but within a metaphor or in an Eastern way) and not propositionally (or in a Western way).  As I said in my last post, most modern Orthodox Jews don’t understand the arguments we get into as Christians about the divinity or claims of Jesus.  They know the story and they understand that Jesus is making explicit claims.  Don’t believe me?  Looking for an example?  Outside the book of John?  Just one for today.


Matthew 11:29 – 30

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This passage is so rich, but I will only get to Jesus’ divinity claims within it.

Most Westerners miss the depth because this seems to be a pretty straightforward, propositional claim (albeit a little conceited if we would hear someone besides Jesus say it).  Jesus is claiming to be gentle and humble and able to give rest because his “yoke” (whatever that is…[something else I’ll have to get to later]) is light.  And we Westerners are done.  We examine the statement, determine whether it is true or false, and move on.  But there is more going on here.

Remember Jesus is an Easterner talking to Easterners.  What is the context in which Easterners communicate?  Not proposition, but story and metaphor.  And in this Jewish community, what is the most important story?  The story of God’s people.  God’s story.  So any time we see Jesus talking, we should always be asking ourselves, “Where have I seen this before?” because 9 1/2 times out of 10, Jesus is referencing an earlier part of the story.  So what is he referencing here?  Let’s pull out each claim and then rack our Old Testament brains.

 

First claim:  Jesus is “gentle and lowly in heart” (ESV) “meek” (KJV) “humble” (NASB)

Numbers 12:3

“the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (ESV)
“the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” (KJV)
“the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.” (NASB)

You may think this is a coincidence, but I believe Jesus is being purposeful in using these particular adjectives for himself.  No one else in all Scripture is described this way except for these two men.  And keep Deuteronomy 18:15 in mind.

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen”  – Moses

 

Second claim: Jesus’ yoke will give us/our souls rest

Exodus 33:14; Jeremiah 16:6

“And [the LORD] said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

“Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ “

According to Exodus (Moses) and Jeremiah, only the LORD (the very name of God) gives us and our souls rest.

In Matthew 11:29-30, Jesus isn’t just saying he’s a nice guy who does nice things for tired and hurting people.  It’s deeper than that.  Jesus is saying, “I am the one like Moses to whom you should listen and I have the power to give your soul rest because I am the LORD.”  Divinity claim.  And we missed it.  Because we don’t know the story.

 

Jesus also declares his deity periodically not in a “metaphorical” Eastern way, but in a propositional Western way.  These are the passages that Western Christians are most familiar with (The “I Am”s in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ claim that he and the Father are one…in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ claim that he is the only way to the Father…in John’s Gospel).  What Western Christians struggle with is how few verses there and, even still, they aren’t as straightforward as we would like them to be.  We can’t point to a chapter and verse and where Jesus says, “I am God.”  We get flustered with liberal “Christians” or non-Christians who like Jesus, but don’t like him as “god” they twist his meaning in these verses to something else.  We don’t know where else to turn.  We just pull the faith card and hope they leave us alone.

What I hope this series of blog posts does is strengthen your faith in the text of Scripture and cause you to look more carefully and dig more deeply so that you can understand not just head-knowledge, fact-based, Western thinking Christianity, which is great and has it’s place, but also understand the personal, story-bound, experiential, Eastern thinking Christianity as well.

Advertisements

…In an Eastern Way

Last week, I wrote about the differences in Eastern and Western thinking and how that radically shapes the way we, as Western thinkers, view Scripture, written by Eastern thinkers.  You can read that here.

In the last post, I talk a lot of theory, but in this one I hope to give you some concrete examples that cause you to more deeply appreciate the text of Scripture and to also encourage you to step into the thought process of the writer and the original audience.

I’m not going to be introducing any “new” doctrine that the Church has missed over the past 2,000+ years.  I think anyone that claims to do something so arrogant has their nose so high up in the air that no one should be surprised when they fall over backwards.  No, I believe that Christian theology is accurate and right and true.  I just believe that, at times, we have been very poor biblical students and even worse interpreters and have failed to see the depth of the text.  For example, if we had been better bible students and attempted to understand the Gospel writer’s original intent, there would have been no major debate about the divinity of Jesus.  If you give an Orthodox Jew the Gospels, they’ll understand immediately what the author is trying to do.  They get right away that he’s claiming to be the God of Abraham and the Messiah, Savior of the World.  They may not agree, but they certainly recognize it’s there.  We Westerners have done such a poor job at seeing this, particularly with the Gospels, which is where our journey begins.


John

I always felt bad for John’s Gospel.  It’s always left out like the pudgy kid in kickball.  All the other Gospels are “synoptic.”  John’s the wierdo.  His stories don’t go in order like everyone else’s.  I always thought it’s because John was crazy.  He’s super old and someone just read him Luke’s Gospel.  Then, he just started rattling off stories in random order that everyone else forgot to include in their Gospel and there you have it.  The Gospel according to John.  That is a very Western way of looking at John’s Gospel.  Because, in Western thinking, if something isn’t linear or synoptic or in order, it’s wrong.  But in the Easter thinking, you can tell a story in chronological order or in not as long as you have a reason

So, let’s look at the first couple stories in John’s Gospel.  The first story we have is Jesus’ very first miracle turning water into wine.  So far so good.  First things first.  The next story we have is… the cleansing of the Temple?  Jesus does this during Holy Week a couple day’s before he’s crucified.  And a Western thinker would ask, “Why is he telling me this story?”  The water to wine?  Because it was his first miracle.  Cleansing the temple?  Uhhh…  This is where our method breaks down.  Let’s ask a more Eastern question.  Instead of asking, “Why is he telling me this story?” ask, “Why is he telling it this way?”

Let’s go back to two passages for one moment.  Two Old Testament passages referencing the coming Messiah.  Joel 3:17-18.  Malachi 2:1-9.  These aren’t Messianic prophecies per se (meaning they aren’t as straightforward as us Westerners would like), but these two verses contributed to the Messianic expectation among the Jews.  The Jews believed that when Messiah came there would be an abundance of wine (Joel 3:17-18) and he would drive the evil priests out from the Temple (Malachi 2:1-9).  Now go back.  How does John begin his Gospel?  By claiming that Jesus is the expected Messiah!  In the second chapter of the book!  Now you get all bent out of shape and ask, “Well why didn’t he just come out and say it?”  HE DID… in an Eastern way.


Mark

Staying in the same vein, I’ll discuss two from Mark’s Gospel, but I have quite a few others here as well.

First, let’s go to Mark 4:35-41.  Jesus calms a storm.  Now, before we start, what kind of miracles did Jesus do?  Heal the sick.  Raise the dead.  Sight to the blind.  Feed thousands of a few occasions.  It seems to me that those would illicit some type of amazed response from the disciples.  But, we don’t see it recorded by any of the Gospel writers…except for this one.  Jesus speaks to a storm calming it down and Mark says, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  What do the disciples get that we don’t get?  Often times pastors don’t know what to do with texts like this, so they skip it or they allegorize it.  “Just like Jesus calmed that storm, he can calm the storm in your life.”  ERRRRR!  WRONG!  Again, we should ask, “Why this way?”

Let’s go back to the Old Testament again.  Psalm 107:28-30.  The “LORD” made the storm…do what?  “Be still.”  Oh and by the way, any time you see “LORD” in the Old Testament, it’s the actual name of God.  So the Psalmist says, “The God of Abraham made the storm be still.”  Fast forward.  Jesus stands up in a boat and says, “Be still,” …and it works.  The disciples get it.  He’s claiming to be God.

One more.

Mark 6:47-48.  Jesus is walking on water.  Before Peter steps out, Mark uses an interesting phrase.  He says, “Jesus wanted to pass them by…”  This may be a detail you might have overlooked, but it begs the question, “Why would Jesus want to pass them by?”

Back to the Old Testament.  There are two instances where two different men are exposed to the holiness of God.  One is Moses and the other is Elijah.  In Exodus 33, God is preparing Moses to leave Sinai and Moses kind of interrupts him and says, “I want to see your glory.”  In 1 Kings 19, Elijah has fled from Jezebel to Mount Sinai (we think) struggling with the fact that he is the only prophet left.  God them comforts him with a still small voice.  I want to draw your attention to two minor verses in each of those stories.  First, in Exodus 33:18-19, how does God say he will reveal himself to Moses?  Pass by.  Second, in 1 Kings 19:11, how does God show up on the mountain?  Pass by.  God is the God who passes by his servants.  So why does Mark tell us that Jesus wanted to “pass them by?”  Because he is the God who passes by his servants.  But if Mark wanted to say that Jesus was God, why didn’t he just say it?  HE DID…in an Eastern way.


Luke

I’ve talked a bit about this one before with regards to Pentecost, but there’s more to it.  If you compare Luke’s telling of Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit and compare it with the account of the Exodus, you’ll see that Luke is trying to draw your attention here.  

In Exodus, the First Passover is celebrated, Moses ascends the mountain of God, Moses descends with the Law of God, and about 3,000 are killed because of their rebellion.

In Luke/Acts, Jesus dies, ascends into heaven, the Spirit descends, and the Church grows by about 3,000.


Matthew

In Jesus’ day, the Jews anticipated the coming of someone like Moses.  Moses said clearly, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen,” (Deut. 18:15).  They were also expecting him to be preceded by someone in the spirit of Elijah (Malachi 4:5).  Jesus clearly teaches that John the Baptist was Elijah (Matt. 11:13-14).  (John even understood himself to be Elijah.  Check this out.)  But, the Jews were still waiting for the Messiah to come who they believed would resemble Moses.  In the mind of the Jews, anything that a person did that pointed to Moses would cause eyebrows to be raised and questions to be asked.  Look at the details that Matthew includes in his Gospel.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus:

Matthew is trying to tell you that Jesus is the prophet like Moses, yet greater than Moses.  He is Messiah.

One more.

Matthew 1.  While I hesitate here because of charlatans like Michael Drosnin, I want to draw your attention to something that is key in Eastern thinking.  Numbers serve a symbolic/qualitative purpose first before they serve a functional/quantitative purpose.  

Now, if you look at Jesus’ genealogy you’ll see that it’s a very Jewish genealogy.  It’s laid out in sevens.  3 sections of 14 generations.  That much is clear (Matt. 1:17).  But if you look closer at Nestle’s Greek New Testament and Old Testament Septuagint, you’ll see something even more amazing.  The number of words in Jesus’ genealogy are evenly divisible by seven.  The number of words that begin with a vowel are evenly divisible by seven.  The number of words beginning with a consonant are evenly divisible by seven.  The number of total letters are divisible by seven.  The number of total vowels and consonants are divisible by seven.  The number of words that occur more than once is divisible by seven (“the” occurs 49 times).  The number of words occurring only once?  Seven.  The number of nouns are evenly divisible by seven.  The number of non nouns are evenly divisible by seven.  The number of proper names are evenly divisible by seven.  The number of male and female names are evenly divisible by seven.  And the number of words that begin with each letter of the alphabet is evenly divisible by seven.  It’s mind boggling that the author could pull this all together.  If you give this to an Orthodox Jew, they’ll say, “Wow.  Matthew wanted to say this guy was from God.”  But Westerns say, “Well, if Matthew wanted to say that Jesus was from God, why didn’t he just say it?”  HE DID…in an Eastern way.

Next week, I’ll talk about Jesus’ specific claims to be God and how we Westerners get frustrated with his “lack of clarity.”

Taking Off Our Thinking Glasses

A few weeks ago I wrote a series on Pentecost that talked about parts of the story that we miss.  I wrote a little bit about why I think we miss these parts of the story, but in my next two posts I want to explore that further.

One of the things we must recognize when we are reading the New Testament (I’ll be focusing on the Gospels specifically) is that we have a different way of thinking than the writers who authored these books and letters.  We are “Western Thinkers” reading texts written by “Eastern Thinkers.”  One isn’t right or wrong, they are just very distinct and unless you make an attempt to understand the writer within his context, you may miss something the author is saying or, worse, misinterpret something the author is saying.

Before I get into this, let me defend authorial intent for a moment.  Without this key pillar of basic biblical hermeneutics, we are quickly sliding down a slippery slope.  We must do our best to attempt to understand what the author meant to convey to the people he was writing to when he put pen to paper instead of the feelings circle we sometimes call “Bible Study.”  (“Well how does this verse make you feel?”  “What does this verse mean to you?”).  All the deconstructionists that write about how we can’t understand the intent or meaning of the Biblical authors seem pretty sure that you understood their intent and expect you not to divorce it from their intended meaning.  I simply don’t understand why the same courtesy can’t be extended to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and all the rest right on down the line.  If you and I mean something specific when we write to someone and get our panties in a bundle when it’s misunderstood or misinterpreted (“That’s not what I meant!”), then why can’t the same be said for the New Testament writers?

Reading Glasses Resting on a BibleSo if we are going to attempt to understand the authors the way they intended, we must first realize that we are looking at the world through a certain pair of glasses and the Gospel writers are looking at the same world through a different pair of glasses.  I’m going to call our glasses “Western Thinking” and the Gospel writers glasses “Eastern Thinking.”  The rest of this post will be devoted to differentiating the two and then my next one will take and apply these principles to the text potentially revealing pieces of the text you have never noticed before simply because you were looking through the wrong glasses.

Western Thinking

I call it “Western” but it could also be deemed Greek thinking.  Western is simply a catch-all for the plethora of cultures in the west that stemmed from the birthplace of Greece.  Now, Western thinking is marked by a few things.

  1. Logic reigns supreme
  2. Value proposition, definition, organization, systematic explanation
  3. Abstract thinkers extracting truth from it’s context
  4. Illustrations are used to clarify a point

Eastern Thinking

I call it “Eastern” but it applies not only to the far east but to the near or middle east as well.  While there are variations within Eastern thought, these principles still ring true.

  1. Story reigns supreme
  2. Value word pictures, dramatic action, and concrete images
  3. Metaphorical thinkers observing truth within it’s context
  4. Illustrations are the point

Examples

  • Words
    • Western thinkers express truth abstractly using words, ideas, and logical definitions.  They prefer prose, outlines, lists, and bullet points
      • Ask a Westerner, “Who or what is God?” and they will answer, “Love.  Truth.  Righteousness.  Eternal.  Almighty.”  Very external, abstract, and logic based definitions.
    • Eastern thinkers express truth concretely using word pictures and stories.  They prefer poetry, imagery and symbolism.
      • Ask an Easterner, “Who or what is God?” and they will answer, “My shepherd.  My living water.  My bread.  My father.”  Very personal, concrete, and picture based definitions.
  • Numbers
    • Western thinkers see numbers as purely quantitative
    • Eastern thinkers see numbers as primarily qualitative or symbolic
      • Think back to the 3,000 referenced in Pentecost that I wrote about previously.  I’ll get to this more in my next post.
  • Life
    • Western thinkers focus on the individual
    • Eastern thinkers focus on community
  • Sin and Repentance
    • Western thinkers see sin as a wrong belief or incorrect thinking.  Repentance, then, is changing your mind.
    • Eastern thinkers see sin as a wrong behavior.  Repentance, then, is engaging in the opposite positive behavior.
      • Not just ceasing to do “bad,” but completing the opposite “good.”
  • Faith
    • Western thinkers focus on the intellectual.  They express faith in creeds, doctrines, and proof texts.
    • Eastern thinkers focus on the relational and personal.  They express faith as relationship rather than rationalization.
  • Truth
    • For Western thinkers, truth is rational and logical and abstract.  They like to take things apart, learn how they work, and extract the underlying principles.
      • Every high school has their students dissect a frog at one point in time.  This is a very Western way of learning.  When they dissect the frog, students can look inside and learn many truths.  How it’s heart works.  How it’s lungs work.  How similar the human and frog digestive systems are.
        • When Western thinkers look at Scripture, they focus on how and why things are done asking, “Why did this happen?”  “Why is the writer telling me this story?”
    • For Eastern thinkers, truth is experiential and story-bound.  They like to observe things, watch how they work, and take that as truth.
      •  A more Eastern way of studying the frog is to take the class to the pond and watch the frog for an unspecified number of days.  In doing this, students will  learn about his family, his habits, his personality.
        • When Eastern thinkers look at Scripture, they focus on what was done and who did it asking, “Who did this happen to?”  “Why is the writer telling me this story in this way?”

I want to clearly emphasize that there is no right and wrong here.  The are just different.  And we need to recognize that they are different.

The Bible was written by Easterners to Easterners.  The exception you could take are the writings of Paul who was an Easterner writing to a more Western audience (which is probably why we Western thinkers like Paul so much.  He’s very organized and didactic and we like that).  Once we realize that the Bible was written by Easterners for Easterners and admit that we don’t approach things the same way, we will be better able to take off our Western glasses and attempt to put on Eastern glasses thereby opening up portions of Scripture that we may have never seen before or never understood properly.

Next week, I’ll go into some specific examples in each of the Gospels hopefully causing your love and appreciation for God’s word to grow.