Saturday, 17 November 2012

Relationship between Old Testament and Christian faith

My question for you and the Rvd. Polkinghorne concerns the relationship between the Old Testament and Christian faith.  Specifically, in light of historical scholarship that casts doubt on the historicity of much of the Old Testament, how are we, as Christians, to deal with situations in which Jesus refers to figures such as Moses and Abraham who may not have existed in a real, historical sense. 

As a Christian university student who attempts to be faithful, but is plagued with doubts, I worry that such a situation would destroy the very foundation of Jesus's ministry.  And the issues raised here say nothing of other parts of the Old Testament that seem downright immoral (e.g. 2 Kings 2:23-25). 

Response:  I don’t think there is much reason to think that Abraham and Moses never existed. The fact that there is no reference to Moses in extant Egyptian writing simply proves that monarchies don’t preserve stories where the monarch comes out in a very bad light.  Almost everyone who No doubt the details of the stories about them have been modified in the telling to make the necessary theological points: the Bible is neither science nor what moderns would consider history (a category that was unknown in the ancient world) but an inspired set of writings that tell truths about the relationship between God and humanity.

However suppose for the sake of argument that a story that Jesus quotes from the Old Testament is legendary (say Moses and the Burning Bush).  Let’s also suppose for the sake of argument that Jesus knew it was legendary*. He is trying to get the Saducees to understand the reality of the resurrection.  He knows that they accept that this story tells fundamental truths about God. So he uses the fundamental truths that they do accept to get them to understand a fundamental truth that the don’t accept.

After all, there is absolutely no reason to think that the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son refer to specific historical figures.  But this doesn’t make what Jesus says, based on their stories, any less valuable.

As for the “immoral” bits of the OT – we need to remember that all scripture must be read in the light of Christ. My favourite example of this is St Benedict interpreting the (apparent) blessing on bashing babies brains out in Psalm 137 as an injunction to nip sins in the bud.  We discuss all this in Questions of Truth which I hope you’ll find helpful.

* This is not self-evident: it’s clear (at least to me) that Jesus limited his omniscience as well as his omnipotence and omnipresence when he became incarnate.

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