Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus

Scholars are increasingly emphasising the considerable differences between modern perceptions of the world and those of Palestine in the first century. They point out  that we might not be aware of important presuppositions held by Jesus and those who listened to him

As important are the presuppositions we have about the world in our own time. Whether or not we like it, we all absorb an entire cultural system as we grow up. That system includes meanings, customs, values, attitudes, beliefs and the like. Many are common to everyone worldwide. Others are shared in various superficially differing forms. A few are unique to particular groups.

One group of biblical scholars emphasises that we don't understand the cross-cultural differences of our own time. How then, they ask, can we possibly understand a dead culture separated from us by some two thousand years of history?

As a result of such questions, research is today shifting substantially away from microscopic analysis of biblical texts to [a] archeology and [b] the broader social context in which Jesus lived. That is, the gospels are now understood to derive meaning from that context. If we are compile a satisfactory profile of Jesus, we must place him in his context.

Let me give a simple example. The gospels contain many references to leaven (see Luke 13.20-21; Matthew 13.33). We know it as yeast, the substance which makes dough rise and gives us bread. So when we read of yeast in the gospels we unquestioningly think of something good. It turns unpleasant, virtually inedible dough into a food which at its best is tantalisingly good.

This is not how either Jesus or other Hebrews thought about yeast. We don't realise why the Hebrews celebrated a feast of unleavened bread. At that feast every trace of yeast was eliminated from a Jewish home each year. 

Yeast was a metaphor for uncleanness, for corrupting sin. In some rabbinic literature it refers to something which prevents people from obeying God. This for Hebrews was the worst sort of sin. The Jewish scholar Philo (20BCE -50) used leaven as a metaphor for arrogance and pretension. Paul uses leaven to warn that even a little evil can corrupt the whole (Galatians 5.9; 1 Corinthians 5.7).

Without this understanding it is impossible to correctly interpret what Jesus meant when he referred to leaven. Take the parable of the woman who took yeast and mixed it with three measures of flour until it rose. 

Jesus likens the kingdom of God to this action. In doing so he would have surprised many and shocked a few. The metaphorical use of leaven was in this instance being completely reversed.

We can now suspect that Jesus is putting across something like this [1]:

  • How can God's way of running things (his kingdom) be like evil corrupting everything? The hearer is brought up short. Perhaps God's kingdom is able to include even those elements of humanity which we normally think of as unacceptable. Is God unclean?

  • Perhaps God doesn't work in showy, extravagant ways, but in secret - like yeast in dough. Jesus seems to be encouraging those around him to re-think their suppositions about how God rules the world.

  • "Three measures" is about 100 kilograms (50 pounds) of flour. This is enough to feed a large number of people. So God's kingdom is perhaps much more bountiful than we think. There is a far greater surplus than we with our insecure fears would like to acknowledge.

There is a large number of such examples in the gospels. Here are just a few:

  • Jesus and most of his contemporaries believed that God created the earth and all living creatures in a single act. Not many of his circle would have been familiar with Greek ideas about the solar system and the nature of matter. It our time, we are governed in this respect by the knowledge of evolution - which rules out a one-off creative act of the sort presupposed in the Bible.

  • Similarly, most people of the first century thought that God (or the gods) ruled the course of history. Humanity might cause this or that to happen - but only because God allowed them temporary space to do so. Today's understanding of history is very different. It is important to identify beliefs in the Bible about the past which cut across or contradict what we know about cause and effect in human affairs and nature at large.

  •  Early Christians and many before them thought that humanity (and indeed the whole of nature) has willfully and rebelliously diverged from what God intended for them. This puts everyone in a state of sin regardless of what they may or may not have done in their lives. In effect, sin is inevitably transmitted from generation to generation rather like a genetic defect. It is difficult for anyone with knowledge of psychology and social dynamics to think in such terms today. At the very least, we should be alert to the influence this pre-modern conception had on those who formulated early Christian doctrines. This includes the authors of the gospels.

  • That God will intervene in his creation one day was a relatively new theory in the time of Jesus. It was thought that God will bring normal history to an end to overthrow and destroy all who oppose his purposes. In doing so, he will bring about the state of affairs he originally intended when he created the world. Since the first century this idea has become firmly established in the corporate Christian mind. However, it is a presupposition which is not persuasive to the modern mind. We recognise, for example, that the world is likely to outlast the human race by a good few billion years.

  • Many Jewish people thought that not everyone will enjoy the benefits of this restored order. Only certain chosen people will enjoy the bliss of God's presence - often thought of as being something like a glorious banquet or party hosted by God. This presupposition fuels much of the New Testament teaching about the nature of the Church. Most Christians today still think of themselves as to some degree special amongst the world's religions. But it is now increasingly being recognised that our world is a unified system. It is impossible to elevate any one part of it over another in what is an interdependent web of mutual interest.

  • The gospel authors and early Christians thought that the Old Testament confirms who Jesus was because it foretells what is to come. It could therefore be referred to for truths about Jesus - even though the Old testament was written long before Jesus lived. In our terms today, this presupposition allowed the gospel authors and later Christians to create a number of myths about Jesus which we today recognise are not "what really happened". A good example might be the ascension of Jesus from earth to join God in heaven.

These are but a few of the presuppositions held by Jesus and his contemporaries. There are many others - about marriage, birth and death, family relationships and so on.

The frequent failure of Christian teachers to bring out these difficulties is, in my opinion, a primary reason for what seems to be a decline of Christianity in those nations which have the highest levels of education.
[1] Following B B Scott in Profiles of Jesus, Polebridge Press, 2002

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