Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter Six

1.  Even a casual reader will soon perceive that, while there is a good deal of similarity between Matthew, Mark and Luke (the ‘Synoptic Gospels’, so-called since they share a common point of view), John is distinctly different.

- What explanations does Polkinghorne offer for this distinction?

2.  The essential point that the Gospels are seeking to get across is expressed in John, where it is said, ‘these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (20.31). This concentration on what is primary means that we should not look in the Gospels for complete consistency of subsidiary detail in what they have to say. We may easily imagine these differences of detail arising in the period of oral transmission that preceded the assembly of the stories in consolidated written form.

- How does this shape or re-shape our grasp of the Gospels’ formation and purpose?

3. If these considerations persuade us, as I believe they should, to take the truthful intent of the evangelists with due seriousness, they will lead us to go on to enquire what we can reliably learn about Jesus from the Gospels. We shall be concerned with finding out both what he said and what he did.

     - Surely the first thing that strikes one is Jesus’ use of parables.
     - Next, one might look for certain turns of phrase that are  
       repeated and which seem to be characteristic of him.
     - One final example of the striking character of the discourse of  
       Jesus can be found in the manner in which he often dealt with
       hostile questioners.

- Review each of these patterns and discuss their importance.

4.  I have already indicated that I do not suppose, however, that every word attributed in the Gospels to Jesus was actually spoken by him in his earthly life. The custom of the ancient world was such that it would not have been considered fraudulent to attribute to a historical character words he might have said in a particular circumstance, even if it was not part of that character’s actual experience, provided it was thought that the statement was compatible with what the character would have been expected to say had he been in that situation.

- How does such communication differ from that of today?

5.  We need also to recognize that there are words of Jesus that are ‘hard sayings’, with which we have to struggle in various ways. First there are the sayings that uncompromisingly challenge the reader with the cost of discipleship, making it clear that to follow Christ will be a demanding vocation. Other hard sayings arise in the context of disputes with the scribes and Pharisees, who are frequently condemned and called ‘hypocrites’ (e.g. Mark 7.6–13). There are sayings of Jesus about judgment in which he speaks in a manner that the modern reader may find disturbing. Finally there is the long apocalyptic passage in Mark 12…and of an end-time of catastrophic woes and suffering to be followed by the deliverance of the elect.
- What makes such sayings “hard?”  Is it Jesus…or us?  Why?

6.  Perhaps the most certain fact about the deeds of Jesus is that he was an outstanding healer.  Jesus is also credited with other remarkable deeds.  John’s Gospel insists that miraculous acts are to be understood as ‘signs’, that is, they are windows through which one can look more deeply into the reality of what God was doing in Christ. They are not to be treated as if they were simply a series of stories of wonder-working. To be theologically credible, miracles must be revelatory events, not capricious conjuring tricks.

- How does Jesus serve as that revelatory window through which you, too, witness the deep reality of what God is doing today?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter Five

1.  The identification and evaluation of the historical content of the Hebrew scriptures is a complex matter involving much learned scholarly debate. Moreover, the world of scholarship is not immune from its own version of the tides of fashion. Currently there is a tendency to place great emphasis on the role of the editorial formation of the Hebrew canon in the post-exilic period of Persian influence, when the Jews had returned from Babylon. We believe this to be the time when the Hebrew Bible was compiled in its present final form.

- Citing examples from Genesis, Judges, 2 Samuel & 1 Kings, what are the challenges of distinguishing that which has symbolic roots from that which has historical roots?

2.  Of course, in the case of archetypical events such as the Exodus from Egypt, the task of sifting historical fact from later elaboration and legendary accretion is much more tricky and difficult, because of continuing reworking and reflection on these foundational themes. Yet I cannot believe that these accounts are mere confabulations. Rather it must surely be the case that there is a historical deposit contained in them, even if its detail has been developed and extended. Once again we find that different elements are allowed to stand side by side without the final editors succumbing to the temptation to produce a smoothed-out harmonization.

- How is this exhibited in Exodus 14, where Moses parts the Red Sea?

3.  In evaluating such evidence as can be gleaned from the attitudes to Israel recorded in other Ancient Near Eastern chronicles and then using this in an attempt to provide checks on the historicity of the Hebrew Bible, we need to remember that the latter was written from the standpoint of Israel, for whom Solomon was a great king with a court of cosmopolitan splendour, while from the general standpoint of the ancient world, Israel must have been seen simply as a small state sandwiched between the really great nations of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, the players of true importance on the international stage. Events in Israelite history need not be expected necessarily to have attracted the attention that would have caused a great nation to record them.

- How was this grandiosity contribute to the exaggeratedly large numbers involved in the Exodus, as well as the incredible life-spans attributed to people of the patriarchal period?

4.  Jewish thinking divides its scriptures into three sections: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. The Law (Torah) is contained in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, called ‘the Books of Moses’.  The section of the Hebrew Bible called the Prophets contains not only what we today would readily recognize as prophetic writings, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, but also the ‘Former Prophets’, the books of our Bible from Joshua to 2 Kings. The third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings, almost inevitably has something of a miscellaneous character. It includes much material that was valued for its spiritual authority, but which did not seem to fit into the Law or the Prophets.

- What did you learn here about Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel?

5.  The longest, and surely the most important, book in the Writings is the book of Psalms. Originating in the worship of the Jerusalem Temple, the Psalter has, for over a period of at least two and a half thousand years, been a profound liturgical resource for both Jews and Christians. The range of spiritual experience and expression to be found in its pages far exceeds that to be discovered within the covers of any hymn book. The psalmists write with great frankness and honesty, rejoicing in God’s goodness but not afraid to protest in times of difficulty and suffering.

- What have you discovered about God and yourself in the Psalms?

6.  The Hebrew Bible was the scripture that permeated the thought of Jesus and the first Christians. It has the strangenesses that come from its particular times and cultures, but it is also full of great riches. I believe that it is very important that the Old Testament retains its traditionally important place in the worship and thought of the Christian Church.

- In a world where the Old Testament is easily dismissed, how would you argue for its relevance and role in nurturing our faith?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter Four

1.  The tapestry of life is not coloured in simple black and white, representing an unambiguous choice between the unequivocally bad and the unequivocally good. The ambiguity of human deeds and desires means that life includes many shades of grey. What is true of life in general is true also of the Bible in particular. An honest reading of Scripture will acknowledge the presence in its pages of various kinds of ambiguity.

- When did you first become aware of this and how do you approach this ambiguity today?

2.  We might begin our consideration with the chilling story of Genesis 22, the testing of Abraham by God as the patriarch is told to sacrifice his only son Isaac on Mount Moriah. In Christian thinking, the akedah, the binding of Isaac as Jewish people call the story, came to be seen as a type…of the death on the cross of Jesus the Son of God in obedience to his Father’s will. In stained-glass windows portraying the history of salvation, the two events are often represented in close association. Both images reflect the ambiguity of a world in which there is both beauty and ugliness, fruitfulness and wastefulness, joy and sorrow.

- What similarities and distinctions do you observe in this close association with Abraham/Isaac and God/Jesus? 
- Where does ambiguity enter into the sacrifice of both?

3.  The patriarch Abraham is one of the great figures in religious history. Three world faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, look back to him as a person of foundational significance. Yet Abraham is not portrayed as morally flawless. Although he is an archetype of the man who puts his faith in God, Abraham’s trust wavers at times.

- What examples are provided regarding Abraham, Jacob, and David?

4.  A quite different kind of ambiguity is represented by the frequent references to angels that appear in both the Old Testament and the New. In both Hebrew and Greek the word translated in English as ‘angel’ is the simply the common word for a messenger. There are therefore different options for understanding these passages.

- Does ‘angel’ refer to a heavenly messenger, a purely spiritual being sent by God? Does it just refer to a human messenger?
- Is the image of an angelic messenger being used to signify by personification, in a symbolic manner that would be natural in the ancient world, the divinely bestowed gift of an enlightening insight?

5.  A somewhat related ambiguity relates to how one should understand some of the biblical miracle stories. I shall later defend my belief that many of the New Testament miracle stories, such as those of Jesus’ many healings and the paramount Christian miracle of the Resurrection, are indeed grounded in historical occurrences. However, is that necessarily true of all these stories?

- Is this an indication that the essential message is that in Christ the ritual of Jewish law is replaced by the freedom of the gospel?
- And does not that imply that the story might simply be a symbolic narrative incorporated into the Gospel as if it were an enacted event?

6.  Yet another kind of ambiguity appears in the Gospels, an ambiguity not of character but of circumstances. Life is such that there is often no single ideal choice to be made, but all possible actions have an inescapable shadow side of one kind or another. The decision to be made is not the unambiguous choice between black and white, but the much more difficult matter of the selection of the least dark shade of grey. Jesus, living a truly human life, was not exempt from having to make this kind of perplexing decision.

- How did Jesus speak of his own family members, as well as a gentile woman who sought healing for her daughter?

7.  We have earlier devoted some attention to what is perhaps the greatest ambiguity in Scripture: the stories of conflict and violence that are to be found in its pages. Though most of these are to be found in the Old Testament, a similar note is not wholly absent from the pages of the New. In addition to the violent symbolic language deployed in Revelation, there are…disturbing incidents to be found elsewhere.

- Describe the ambiguous circumstances surrounding:
       The dishonesty of Ananias & Sapphira
          The betrayal of Judas Iscariot
            The moral struggles of Paul

- What might we have in common with each of these?