Thursday, 28 February 2013

Making Myths About Hebrew Bad News

It's strange, the way we can make the mythď we want to comfort us in our positions.

I'm particularly thinking about the idea, popular with some, that the Jewish people up to the time of Jesus were labouring under the yoke of an oppressive law. To quote one of Drayton Parslow's interminable sermons, which he kindly emailed to me:

"They foundered in the seas of unbearable sin, that they somehow knew that they could never drag themselves from: kill they ever so many sheep, goats and bulls. A stain of sin that could not be washed by an ocean of sacrificial blood poured over the altar.

"The shining light of the Gospel then burst in, casting bright rays on those benighted Jews, struggling through their valley of the deathly shades, and they had two choices - to recognise the true Sun of Righteousness, or to scuttle into the comfort of the deeper darkness of Hades."

There's a few problems with this approach. And I guess the main one is that, reading the Bible, I'm not sure there's any evidence of it. The Hebrew folk of the Old Testament seem mostly to have been a merry enough bunch. Psalm 119 does not suggest somebody struggling under the weight of unkeepable laws - rather, this is someone rejoicing in the wonders that God's law reveals to him.

Likewise the New Testament Jews seem to have many problems. But, at least among those who flocked to Jesus, the questions they seem to have been asking were "Who can heal me / my child / my servant" and "Please can you kick out the Romans?"

Not quite true, I guess. There was one man who asked the sort of question that the "Jews labouring under a shadow" theology might want to address. "What must I do to be saved?" But even this young man wasn't suffering with the Law - he'd been perfectly obedient since he was a child.

And the answer Jesus gave him wasn't "lay down your sins on me, and rejoice that you've thrown off the yoke of the Law." No, it was "give everything you have to the poor, and come follow me."

That wasn't identifying the Jewish Law as the problem. The man's problem was where his heart was - with his money, not with God. The Law had been a good guide to him - but the Law was meant to keep him on the road to a place where he didn't want to go.

And then there's the statement that "The Old Testament ends with a curse, the New Testament ends with a blessing." Well, it's true in modern Protestant Bibles. Malachi does end with a curse - or, at least, a threat. But maybe it actually ends with a promise? The promise that Messiah will come, which is answered in the (thoroughly Jewish) Jesus of the next book in the Protestant Bible, Matthew's Gospel. But the books are in that order because that's how Christians have arranged them.

But the bible of the Jews doesn't end with that threat in Malachi. Because the Hebrew Bible isn't in the same order. Now I can't confirm this with my own copy of the Hebrew Bible - because I can't read Hebrew. I only bought it as an affectation. But I believe on relatively good authority that it doesn't finish with Malachi.

The Hebrew Bible of Jesus' day was a set of scrolls, in any case. In one sense, it didn't "end" with anything, as a set of scrolls can't. And they hadn't even got round to deciding, once and for all, what the Bible actually was. The Sadducees, after all, rejected a whole load of the Pharisee Bible. The Septuagint had a few books that never made it into the Hebrew canon. So how could it finish with a curse?

So my conclusion, this bright shiny Lenten morning, is that the Jews weren't, and aren't, anything like as weighed down by their Law as some Christians would have us believe. Jesus is Good News - but the "Bad News" of Judaism ain't the reason why.

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