Did Jesus treat the Bible like we do?

11 min. to read.

Not long ago I posted a comment on Facebook. It was meant to be encouraging to my Christian friends. I didn’t expect it to be controversial. I wrote:

“Christian: If your theology, doctrine or world-view is based on anything other than Jesus, it’s time to upgrade your operating system. Saying something is ‘Biblical’ is not helpful because the books in the Bible documents all kinds of beliefs, laws and stories, many of which aren’t meant to be prescriptive, or were prescriptive in a different time and culture, but are no longer. Everything we need to know about God, we see in Jesus. Our guide for how to treat others, we see in Jesus. Our hope is in Jesus. Jesus is God’s final word.”

Very shortly I received a comment that pushed back. “Wait…” they wrote. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting and training in righteousness.” The writer challenged me: “To deny the validity…of any part of scripture requires we deny the validity…of Christ’s words…I believe Jesus is pretty clear that no part of Scripture is outdated or invalid.” She ended with a powerful statement: “I think selective acceptance of the Bible is dangerous and contrary to what Jesus taught.”

Unlike some people who correct me online, this person isn’t a grumpy troll. She is a thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate woman that I happen to know takes her faith quite seriously. Knowing something of her heart, her words felt significant to me, and worth reflection.

Her last statement has been turning over and over in my mind now. Did Jesus clearly teach that no part of Scripture is outdated or invalid? Even asking that question feels heretical to some Christians.  Something about her concern seems exactly right. Something also seemed off.

If I’m the authority, the Bible isn’t.

The question on the table is an important one. How are we to understand the authority of Scripture? This question lies at the heart of most every church controversies for the past two thousand years.

Christians all claim the Bible as the source of authority in their lives. Evangelical Christians, in particular, declare the Bible to be the never-changing, always perfect, inspired and authoritative Word of God. Yet, there’s wide disagreement about what it means to accept the Bible as an authority.

How is the Bible authoritative? Is every word authoritative in the same way, with the same weight? Or is there some kind of interpretive hierarchy within scripture? If there is, how do we avoid ending up with a subjective pick-what-you-like-avoid-what-you-don’t view of the Bible?

This is, I think, the core of truth and wisdom from the commenter. It’s nonsense to claim the Bible is an authority in my life, if I alone have the final say about which parts are authoritative. That’s just me, gleaning scriptural justification for the positions I already find attractive.

That left me in an interesting space. One the one hand, I believe and teach that the Bible is God-given, inspired, useful for teaching, and meant to have authority in our lives. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the Bible is uniformly authoritative–a “flat text” as New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, puts it.[note A “Flat Text” is one where every single verse carries exactly the same weight, with the same authority, and is binding in the same way.]

So, how did I get there? Are these two ideas compatible? Am I falling off the deep end? (I sense a new blog series coming on…)

So, what did Jesus really say?

The starting point, at least for me, is Jesus. The person who commented on my post was, I think, correct to look there first.

Her words again: “I believe Jesus is pretty clear that no part of Scripture is outdated or invalid…I think selective acceptance of the Bible is dangerous and contrary to what Jesus taught.” But is that accurate? Is this what Jesus taught?

Jesus quoted Old Testament scripture as if it was authoritative. He quoted it to reveal and combat the lies of Satan. He referred to scriptural passages and stories as support for his teaching. He quoted scripture to resolve theological disputes. He said that the words in the Jewish scripture, commonly referred to as “the Law and the Prophets,” were lasting and authoritative. His words:

Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. — Matthew 5:17-18

While Jesus said much more about scripture, I think this is sufficient to at least agree that Jesus saw scripture as God-given, inspired, unchanging and authoritative. But is that the end of the story?

Jesus had an interesting relationship with the Torah, the collection of scripture in existence at his time. He declares it authoritative, he used it, quoted it and referred to it in the ways you would if you believed it to be authoritative, yet upon closer examination, it seems like Jesus didn’t see all of it as uniformly authoritative.

(Note: I’m not making this argument from the writings of Paul. Paul clearly goes on to redefine the relationship of the Christian to the law. Here I’m sticking with Jesus, what he said, and what he did.)

Let’s look at a handful of examples of what I mean.

Jesus seemed to see the Old Testament laws regarding cleanliness and defilement as secondary to some other higher standard. The Old Testament declared quite a number of things to be unclean, saying that anyone who touches them is defiled. But Jesus clearly and (it seems) intentionally violated these rules. Sometimes he even told other people to violate them!

Jesus touched a leper and he repeatedly touched dead people. Both of these were declared unclean in scripture. Not only would this make Jesus unclean, it also would make him guilty before God. Jesus violated these scriptural rules personally. He also challenged the religious leaders on how they saw and enforced these rules.

Another example. The Mosaic law gave quite a list of foods that were unclean. Eating them would defile a person, but Jesus said something different. It’s not what we eat that defiles us, he said. It’s the intentions of our hearts and the actions that emerge from them. He didn’t just clarify these rules about food. He directly contradicted them!

Jesus’ clarification and re-interpretation of well-known Old Testament laws didn’t end with matters of ritual cleanliness and food. He also radically challenged the rules about the Sabbath. This was controversial territory.

Sabbath-keeping was one of the most important markers of God’s people. Every Jewish child learned how to keep the Sabbath. The practice traced its origin back to creation. The Old Testament forbid work on the Sabbath. This wasn’t a minor rule[note If you respond to this post saying the distinction is that Jesus changed the “ceremonial laws” but not the “moral laws,” I’ll challenge you back.  Find a scripture that establishes those two categories of laws. There isn’t one that I can see. This idea that the “ceremonial law” was a part of the Old Covenant, but the “moral law” continues in the New seems like a dodge to me. I know it’s a common statement. I’ve said it myself.  But is it really Biblical?] It was embedded right in the Ten Commandments.

Yet, Jesus supported the breaking of this law on several occasions. Two examples: His disciples were accused of breaking the Sabbath by picking grain to feed themselves. Jesus defended them. In another case, Jesus told a man he had healed on the Sabbath to pick up his bedroll and head home, even though this was a direct violation of God’s decreed will.

In the Sermon on the Mount, we find the most famous example of Jesus re-defining the Old Testament commands. One by one, dealing with murder, adultery, divorce, serving others, and love for enemies, Jesus refers to an Old Testament statement. These different standards were all either direct quotes from the law, or Rabbinic interpretations that carried the weight of law in his community. In a powerful and authoritative voice, Jesus declared, “You’ve heard it said…” citing the law, and then said, “But I say unto you…” re-defining and expanding it.

In each cases, he actually makes the law deeper, applying to a wider set of circumstances, than was commonly understood. We often skirt around this by saying that Jesus was just correcting wrong interpretations or trying to get back to the original intention. This may be true, but is also can keep us from coming face to face with the truth that in at least two of these situations Jesus was quoting the actual words of the Old Testament, and replacing them with a much stricter and deeper command.

The lens through which Jesus read scripture.

Am I claiming that Jesus’ undermined the authority of scripture? No.

Am I claiming that Jesus didn’t believe that scripture was God’s inspired word? No.

It just seems to me from Jesus’ words and actions, that when Jesus said that God’s law was authoritative and final he meant something higher than just the “letter of the law.” It seems like Jesus was constantly appealing to this higher standard. This higher standard allowed Jesus to correct false interpretations, but it also allowed Jesus to update and in some cases even change Biblical commands.

Am I claiming then that we have the right to change or update scripture? Absolutely not.

I am claiming that if Jesus saw a higher standard in God’s law that served as the governing principle, then for us to accurately read scripture and obey it, we need to see the same governing principle as the high point.

What is this high point? We don’t need to infer. Jesus tells us.

And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him:  “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” – Matthew 22:35-40

This is the filter through which Jesus saw all of God’s will and guidance for us. He says it himself. “All the law and the prophets,” (a Jewish phrase that simply means all of inspired scripture) hangs on these two thing. Love for God, and love for neighbor.

This lines up with Jesus’ final word on the command that governs our lives.

I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. – John 13:34

This is the lens through which we must look at all scripture. This is the interpretive guideline we must use, if we are to understand God’s counsel in accordance with Jesus’ view.

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight put it plainly:

The Bible is not flat; the Bible points to Jesus so to Jesus we must go! …It was Jesus himself – a person, born, living, teaching, acting, miracles, and all that, then dying and then rising and then glorified – who evoked faith and who then led to Scriptures through the Spirit and then guided the Church into those Scriptures. The first Christians didn’t believe in Jesus because they had a New Testament but they composed the New Testament because of Jesus and because they believed in him and because God’s Spirit empowered them to know the truth about Jesus. – Scot McKnight

This is a topic much broader than a single blog post can handle. So, yes, there’s much more than can be said. But this is the starting point.

Jesus didn’t teach that every single verse in the Bible is never changing. Jesus taught and showed us that what is never-changing is God’s highest and ultimate command for us. Everything else is an application to our lives in a particular time, place and circumstance. More soon.

11 thoughts on “Did Jesus treat the Bible like we do?

  1. I like your thoughts. I have not had the same concern about taking the Bible literally as others have for many years now. A thorough theological education reveals to what a vast degree the Bible is a very human document, not a God one. As I pointed out to someone who wanted to argue with me about the Bible’s literal revealed truth, does God ever take away someone’s free will? Ever? No. So if a human wanted to write down his or her thoughts, experiences, beliefs, dreams, interpretations, and some of those were indeed inspired by God, would that person be prevented from inserting their own thoughts and ideas into it? No. Moreover, that same person would be writing with a language, culture, and time frame of reference which would hamper and limit his or her perspective and understanding.

    One only has to look up into the sky and reflect how beyond our ability to comprehend vastness of this Universe in which we live is. Hundreds of billions of galaxies all with hundreds of billions of stars each. Do any of us have the hubris to believe that we can contain the generator of the Universe in a book? Some do. I call them Bible worshippers. They worship the Bible not God. God is not contained by anything. As God said, “I am who I am.” All human minds combined cannot comprehend, contain, or control God.

    So to take your thoughts one step further, how can we actually know that something that is reported to be said by Jesus, actually was said? We all know the Gospels were written decades after his death. That is why I think that one must be careful when looking at “what Jesus said” in the Bible. It may be someone else’s words put into his mouth. Remember, no one’s freewill is ever taken away, ever. The best of intentions may be put into it but that doesn’t change the fact that something may be reported as being said by him that wasn’t. For example, how could he have told Peter that he would build his church on him, when there was no such thing as the church for decades? And Jesus gives no indication that he was trying to start a new religion anyway. Think about that for a minute. That’s just one tiny example. There are many more. The entire Gospel of John is a developed theology, not an historical record.

    I do however believe that Jesus’ summation of the law is consistent with his teachings. I also think that the Parables are the closest thing to words that actually came out of his mouth. And some of the other lessons. I’m not saying that nothing he was reported to have said, wasn’t something that he said, but one must be wise and discerning. As you pointed out, that summation of the law is in fact pretty much what he taught people. I personally liked the quote from him that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Or, “you will travel over land and see to make a convert, and then make him twice as fit for Hell as you are.” He was quite clear about his disdain for religious hypocrisy and self serving self righteousness. He even made a point to tell us not to make a show of our religion like the hypocrites but to pray in secret, and then told us what is reported to be “The Lord’s Prayer,” which is pretty straightforward and simple in its communication with God and ourselves.

    Where am I going with all of this? That the Bible is not the inerrant word of God, it never was, and it never will be. Would we accept slavery as okay now? No. Would we accept that women aren’t equal to men now? No. Do we think that the Sun revolves around the Earth or that it is flat and has edges? No. Do we abide by the dietary laws and clothing requirements in the Old Testament? No. So then it isn’t inerrant in every word is it? No. Nor was it written by the many human authors to be such. Do you imagine that when Paul wrote a letter in response to a problem to one of the communities that he helped to found that it would become “God’s Word?” I think Paul would be mortified by it. He was writing to specific people at a specific time about a specific thing. Yes his words and thoughts are worth noting. But he didn’t think of them as being on high from God, he would have shuddered at such a notion. The Book of Ruth was a political document intended to criticize the Jewish belief at the time that one was only truly Jewish if ones ancestry went back 10 generations. So the author wrote a book making David’s ancestor a good woman who wasn’t a Jew. The creation stories are varied. Three stories redacted into one, but being translated into English makes it is less obvious. The Book of Job was a story borrowed from another culture. The Book of Revelation is a diatribe against the Roman Empire not a tome telling us about the future. I could go on and on.

    Being Christian requires thinking as well as acting. It requires us to Love God and our Neighbor. The Two Commandments as I like to call them. And just to be sure we get the point Jesus gives us the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

    1. Hey Wayne, such interesting thoughts. I think I’m probably a bit more conservative than you are in regard to the text, but I love the perspective you bring. Just the idea you share about free will and inspiration is really compelling to me. One of things I’ve thought long about is that for God’s character to be love, as the NT says it is, God’s WAYS have to be loving just as much as God’s OUTCOMES. Your view of how inspiration happened is an interesting take on that. I’m going to be chewing on this for a while, I think.

  2. Interesting read. Do you think there will be a paradigm shift on this? I get scared (best way to describe it) when I start to think different than when I was taught from childhood on this. Are we changing the way to think about God and Jesus to make it easier on us, or are we understanding it better? Also, did others long ago think these same thoughts?

    1. It’s probably a paradigm shift personally for some of us. And I totally get the anxiety that comes when you step away from things you were raised with.

      I’ll tell you one of the most freeing things — I spent a lot of time studying how Christians across time have understood the Bible. It was surprising to see that the interpretations that I learned were “the right way to understand things,” haven’t always been how Christians read the Bible. Big name theologians — Augustine, Origin, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, so many — didn’t read every verses the way we often do today. Seeing that smart people across time have read scripture differently gave me freedom to study it for myself. You bet people thought these same thoughts — these and others. Seeking to understand the character of God through scripture is an adventure of thought. God is big—infinite. Way bigger than scripture. Of course this endeavor is going to prompt us to change our paradigm every now and then.

  3. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shows how he did not interpret it litterally, or wooden as some might say, but in a way that challenged people to stop being legalistic and start being compassionate.

    1. I think that’s right. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are quite an interesting study of how he related to scripture.

  4. Sin, regardless of its depth or breadth it is still sin; therefore scripture regardless of its position: Torah or New Testament is inherently authoritative, God-breathed and divinely inspired. Although the culture shifts, founding biblical principals should not.

    1. It doesn’t seem to me that this comment interacts with the blog post at all. This post wasn’t about definitions of sin, nor was it about the inspiration of scripture, nor was it about shifting culture. It was about Jesus’ way of seeing scripture, as demonstrated by his words, teachings and actions.

  5. Jesus confrontation with religious action (all in the name of the Torah) is quite explicit: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law–justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.”

    Jesus view of the role of the law and the prophets confronted the selectivity of the religious particularists. Whenever I hear someone say “Well, the Bible says…..and we have to take that literally.”, I begin looking for their selection of ‘favourite’ quotes to justify their personal beliefs. Jesus attacked the pharisaical view of the Bible as an edited selection cut out of it; to justify racial profiling (eg. against Samaritans), gender-based discrimination (“Can’t a man divorce a woman for any reason?” Matthew 19:3), craving for wealth or power or whatever.

    The Bible is not a science textbook, nor is it a car manual, nor a tome to establish legal precedent. The Bible is people; rich and poor, powerful and outcasts, women and men and children, some driven to achieve and fulfill goals and many fearful and timid. In the midst of this, Jesus came to speak, to touch, to heal and to show love. That is why Paul calls his former life and its accomplishments manure; Jesus overthrew all he had thought his life was made of, all he had striven to achieve.

    If our former beliefs about life have not been overturned (like the money changers in the Temple – who didn’t think their actions were wrong), then we haven’t begun a life of faith. If we think we have reached it all, achieved everything we need to in our inner and intellectual life, then we have left the path of faith and strayed into a bog of self-righteousness. If we don’t care more about people than about the strictures of a moralistic code, then we have stopped being like Jesus.

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