The Bible: Picking and Choosing

When I was a young Christian, Amy-Jill Levine came and spoke at our college. If you have never heard of her, she is one of the leading figures in North America in the arena of historical Jesus studies, and she teaches New Testament studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. At the end of her presentation, she began taking questions from the audience. At the time, my enemies were prosperity Gospel preachers (because when you are an evangelical Christian, you have to hate someone). I asked a question about how prosperity preachers could ever get their message from Jesus if Jesus was a homeless, middle-eastern man. I concluded my question, regarding the Bible: “Don’t you think they are picking and choosing?” Amy-Jill responded, saying “I think what they are doing is very wrong, and I disagree with them. But, it is important to remember that we all pick and choose.”

I was caught off guard by her response. Surely I do not pick and choose what parts of the Bible I want. It had always seemed to me like critics of the Bible had used that technique to write off the Bible, and angry Christians cited portions of the Bible that they wanted in order to dish out selective hatred. I didn’t want to be either of those, and I really believed that I accepted all of the Bible as equal. Eventually, however, I realized that this is not possible if one claims to be a follower of Jesus. Years later, I would now say I still love the Bible and hold deep reverence for the Bible, but it cannot be read like a cookbook. Certain passages must be given precedence over others if were are to draw any sort of sensible conclusions through our interpretations.

This was not easy for me to embrace until I found that this is something that the Bible does itself. As it is written in Isaiah 61:1-2, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.” Jesus quotes this passage in Luke 4:18-19 when he speaks at a synagogue in Nazareth, and it reads like this “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

Did you notice the difference? Jesus left out the “God’s anger against their enemies” part. Why? Because Jesus was making an interpretive decision in what will take priority in his reading of Scripture. Jesus was creatively retelling the story in a way that gave compassion, justice, and restoration precedence over hostility, violence, and condemnation. In some sense, Jesus is picking and choosing. St. Paul does this as well in Romans 15:10, in which he cites the Hebrew Scriptures, “And again it is written, ‘Rejoice, O nations, with His people.’” St. Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32:43, which reads in its fullness “Rejoice, O nations, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants, And will render vengeance on His adversaries, And will atone for His land and His people.” Why did Paul leave out the part about vengeance and bloodshed? Because the living Christ had radically reshaped the way he understood human history. All of the nations will rejoice, but not because their enemies are being slaughtered. All of the nations will rejoice because God is reconciling the world to himself. This is why St. Paul wrote in Romans 15:7 “Accept one another, as God in Christ has accepted you.” If the ultimate end of the mission of Jesus is reconciliation, then we must reinterpret the violence and tribalism that we find in the Old Testament.

There was an ancient heretic from early church history named Marcion, who believed that the Old and New Testaments had two different gods, and that the Old Testament must be dismissed now that Christ has revealed the true God to replace the false demigod of the Old Testament. This idea was fought against and rejected, as Marcion aimed to throw out the entire Old Testament. While one can be sympathetic to Marcion for his awareness of the discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, to simply dismiss the Old Testament does not seem to be an option, as Jesus appears to have very much endorsed the Old Testament as authoritative. Instead, we must reinterpret the Hebrew Scriptures in light of how God has been decisively revealed in Jesus. This is what makes a reading of the Bible uniquely Christian - that we “pick and choose” Jesus to be the final word about what God is like.

The writer of Hebrews seemed to state very ardently the supremacy of Jesus over the writings of Scripture, as he writes “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power." (Hebrews 1:1-3) It was believed by early Christian communities that Jesus was the exact representation of God’s character and nature. It should be noted that the Bible never claims such an office for itself. Thus, the Bible is not the perfect revelation of God, but Jesus is. The Bible is a witness to Jesus, it points beyond itself to Jesus, and it is an unfolding story in which Jesus is the main character. How do we read the Bible in a truly Christian fashion? We must “pick and choose” Jesus to be the true and definitive expression of what God is like, we must reinterpret all things with Jesus being the decisive Word of God, and we must give Christ precedence over all things in the Scriptures. Because the Christian confession is that Christ is the fullness of God, and if God looks like Jesus, that is Good News for the whole world.