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Friday, May 3, 2013

How First Century Jews Read the Bible

I have often written about the ancient church's approach to the Bible. Beginning with Paul, I have demonstrated frequently that "the plain sense of Scripture" advocated in "the literal reading" of the text was not the only, nor the preferred approach. The spiritual reading was also vital (literally "alive"). As Paul said, "for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." [Now he is making a contrast between the two covenants, Moses and Christ, but in a related sense this contrast is a based on a deeper assumption about how God is at work.] I found the verse in 2 Corinthians 3, which ironically reinforced my point here. Moses' veil (because his face was too bright for the Israelites to look at) becomes a metaphor for Paul of the failure of Jews to recognize Jesus as Messiah/Christ in his own time (hence, "when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there..."). Faith, Paul makes clear, is needed so that "when one turns to the Lord the veil is lifted." By extension, when one turns to the Lord then the veil is lifted and the revelation of God (in and through the text) can more deeply occur. Without the work of the Spirit, the Bible is just words. They provide information about God, in various literary forms, but they do not engender an encounter with God. Paul's readings of his Bible, exemplified  here with 'the veil,' are Spirit driven so that he can find a deeper application of the ancient word (OT). The veil of Moses is not just history, it is explanatory theology of the rejection of Jesus by His own.

My intent is not to study Paul's use, that was a sort of synchronos discovery. Rather, I want to look again at the book of "Wisdom of Solomon." Recall, many scholars date this work to the time of Jesus. In chapter 10, the role of Wisdom (personified as a divine being) is traced in salvation history. [A side note, reflections on Wisdom parallel the Christian understanding of Jesus' pre-incarnate being. This is seen most clearly in 7:25-26 ("[Wisdom] is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty...she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of His goodness") which shares common language with the great Christological hymns of the NT in John 1 (the Word, Light) and Colossians 1:15ff (the Image); see also Philippians 2). What we see is an idea, that the fullness of God is emanating, i.e., poured out eternally in divine being (Word, Holy Spirit, Wisdom are three ways it is expressed). When Wisdom is called the "breath" we must remember that ruah (Hebrew word) means breath, wind and spirit... The idea of eternal emanation, of aspects of God having a share in (One God) and existence separate from (Three persons) God is the basis of our belief in Trinity. Obviously, this is a second off task reflection, back to the text!]

Like the author of Hebrews 11, who reviews salvation history with the recurring "by faith" attached to the main actor in each scene of the narrative (starting with Abel and Enoch and extending through the whole story of the ancient covenant, ending with a list of names and a generic reference to 'the prophets.'), the author of the Wisdom of Solomon reviews the story of God's people inserting the role of Wisdom. Why does this matter? Simply because the "letter" of the old covenant texts do not make mention of Wisdom's role at all. Because the Jews read the Bible this way (in the century before and after Jesus' birth) so Paul, Peter and Jesus do the same. They lived in that time period. And the early church Fathers read the Bible in the same way (spiritually, typologically, spiritually, metaphorically, "as an example for us," etc.) What we see, then, is that the story is also shaped by the later telling. In psalms this has already taken place. In the Wisdom of Solomon, it continues. The author (fictive Solomon, who lived some 1000 years before the book was written, this, too is another common practice of the time) assumes his readers are familiar with the OT story of salvation as he makes no named references. In fact, there is almost a puzzle-like quality to the writing as one must tease out who "the righteous man" in this or that scenario. Eventually it is clear: Abraham  here, Joseph there, Moses here, Jacob there. But 10:15, which calls Israel "a holy people and blameless race" is not totally in sync with the biblical story, is it? In chapter 16, another reflection on Wisdom and the exodus, we read, "You supplied them from heaven with bread ready to eat, providing every pleasure and suited to every taste. For your sustenance manifested your sweetness toward your children; and the bread, ministering to the desire fo the one who took it, was changed to suit everyone's liking."

Clearly, the author is claiming something beyond the Exodus text on manna. Did everyone like it? (no, they ended up complaining that they wanted meat) From whence this belief? Here we see manifest the telling of the story vs. the story written and frozen at a particuar time. The rabbis (including Paul and Jesus) would continue teaching the stories. In fact, much of the NT is actually sermons and extensions of OT texts (most thoroughly seen in the Apocalypse of John). Our ignorance of ancient ways and our lack of reading the Bible in it original language and setting, are a veil over our eyes. I do not read the Torah and see (God's) Wisdom at work the way this author does. For those who accept the canonicity of this text (and some in the early church did, it was included in a NT canon in one place!) it is a new and deeper reading which informs how we understand the Bible (OT). Much like Peter impacts our reading of Noah and Paul impacts the understanding of Abraham's wives/descendents, so here we are asked to go deeper.

If I were not so busy working on five other things I would read the Wisdom of Solomon straight through. Perhaps another day. But maybe one of you, a reader of this blog, will be led by the Spirit to a deeper enocunter with God by doing that today? In the end, it is why our journey of faith is done together. May holy Wisdom, the Wisdom of the One and Triune God, fill us all this day with a knowledge of God, an encounter with God and a deeper relationship in God.

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