Sacred: the Abrahamic Religions and their Books (part 2)

10 June 2007 at :00 am

Sacred is an exhibition at the British Library of beautiful and ancient texts from the three Abrahamic religions (full details on http://www.bl.uk/sacred). I guess nothing like it has ever been assembled before. It demonstrates the extraordinary contribution made by these faiths to our culture and the care with which over centuries all three faiths have attended to the written word. The atmosphere of the exhibition is quiet and reflective. As you go in, the first thing you see is a beautifully lettered copy of the Hebrew Scriptures; a radiantly illuminated Greek New Testament; and the magnificent calligraphy of a royal Qu'ran - the three holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam side by side. The message is plain. These three religions of the book have so much in common: the 'peoples of the book' must discover what we share.

Certainly, we share a great deal in terms of our fundamental beliefs about God and some of our fundamental ethical teachings, but there are important differences between the three Abrahamic faiths. The exhibition also raises for me the question of difference: if we can also look at these together, we have the basis of a dialogue and for deeper mutual understanding. Today, as a Christian theologian, I want to focus on the attitude of Christians towards the Hebrew Bible. It takes one aback for a moment, as one enters the exhibition, to be presented with three sacred books - and for the Christian book to be a Greek New Testament.

It takes one aback because for Christians the Hebrew Scriptures are an integral part of the sacred text. Christians have for centuries spoken of the Hebrew Bible ('bible' comes from biblia, meaning 'books') as the Old Testament. In recent years, however, it has become more common amongst Christian scholars to speak about the Hebrew Bible because when we speak of the Old Testament we seem to suggest these books contain a witness to God that has been superseded and can now be discarded. From the first century, Christians have asked, 'Now that we have the New Testament can we discard the Hebrew Scriptures?' and the answer of the Church has always been a resounding 'no'. When we speak of the Hebrew Bible we recognise that these Scriptures are the legacy of God's revelation to the Jewish people and that the Jews have kept these texts faithfully, meditating on them and living in accord with them to this day. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says, 'Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets [that is, the two main strands in the Hebrew Scriptures]; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.' (Mt 5:17)

Paul, himself of course a Jew, has often been presented, particularly among Protestants, as wanting Christians to leave behind the teaching of the law (that is the first five books of the Old Testament particularly) and live according to the spirit of Christ. Modern biblical scholars question whether Paul thought in such opposed terms. Extensive study has shown that Paul saw much more continuity between his Jewish and his Christian faith than was hitherto recognised. Above all, he saw the same grace of God at work in the giving of the law and in the giving of Jesus Christ. Speaking of his own people, he wrote, 'They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, God who is over all be blessed for ever.' (Rom 9:4-5). When Paul became a follower of Jesus Christ, he did not totally reject the law. He saw it as being like a helper that had brought him to the school of Christ (cf. Gal 3:24). The law had guided him in the way; but it had not brought him to the saving knowledge of God. It was Christ alone who had done that.

The Church's view of the Hebrew Scriptures became yet more clear in the second century when it opposed the popular teaching of Marcion (died c.160). Marcion taught that the Hebrew Scriptures spoke of a God who is violent and cruel, but Jesus spoke bore witness to a God who is loving and kind. With the coming of Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures could be discarded. Something better was here. But Marcion went further. He thought that some of the New Testament texts, like Matthew's Gospel, were too influenced by Judaism, so they should be thrown out as well. What he offered was the sort of Christianity in which we pick and choose the texts we like and the understanding of God that appeals to us. It was this that the Church rejected.

The Church affirmed that from start to finish the New Testament is rooted in the Hebrew Bible. If we were to choose just one book of commentary to help us understand the New Testament, it would have to be the Hebrew Bible, probably in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. When the Hebrew Bible is quoted in the New Testament, it is usually via the Septuagint. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes abundantly clear the continuity between the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the stories of Jesus. The whole point of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which the church of course accepted as part of its own Scriptures, is to show the continuity, as well as the discontinuity, between the faith which the Hebrew Christians were brought up in and their new-found Christian faith.

Given the bitter history of Christian anti-semitism, culminating in the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust in the middle of the last century, Christians have had to re-learn how much we owe to God's ancient people, the Jews. Nevertheless, Christians read the texts of the Hebrew Bible in the light of Jesus Christ, and here lies the difference with Judaism. We have much to learn from Judaism, with its long history of Biblical reflection and scholarship. The popularity of Jewish teachers like Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, shows how much we have to learn from Jewish teaching today. The key thing for a Christian to remember is that the Bible of Jesus was the Hebrew Bible. These were the sacred texts that Jesus learnt by heart, on which he meditated, and which shaped his own understanding of God. As followers of Jesus, we have to learn how to read the Bible of Jesus - with the mind of Christ.

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