As I previously mentioned, I’m observing Lent this year by setting aside some time every day to read and reflect on the Bible. This is a practice that I haven’t done in a couple years, and I’m hoping to rediscover some of the substance of my faith in the process.
To begin my project, I figured I would read through one of the gospels, and since in the past I’ve showed a particular favoritism towards Matthew, I would change it up and spend some time reading the Gospel of John. I’m about halfway through the book at this point, and the effect it’s having is a really strange one. My reading this time is done with the understanding that the author of John most likely wrote the account with the intent of emphasizing certain aspects of early Christian practices peculiar to whichever church the author was affiliated with. Because of that, there are multiple passages where the author of John makes a point of explaining to the reader how things that Jesus is portrayed doing reflect passages from earlier scripture which can be retrofitted to be explicitly about the Messiah. It’s kind of weird realizing that now when just a few years ago I took a much more face value view of the Bible’s textual origins. The impact I feel most strongly right now is how much I had been taught to rely on inerrancy as a foundational aspect of my faith; so much of evangelicalism is predicated on a supernaturally inflected view of the world that it really does feel like a house of cards collapsing when you pull the base away. All that’s left is a skeleton of moral imperatives that you suddenly realize were supposed to be the foundation all along.
These specific observations aren’t really anything new (at least in my mind), but I think this is the first time I’ve confronted how recognizing that paradigm shift changes my interaction with the Bible.
One way where this shift becomes really stark is in how I look at the portrayal of the Jews in John’s gospel. Christians seem to be in the habit of treating the Pharisees and the Saducees who antagonize Jesus in all the gospel accounts as these cartoonish villains, but they ignore the underlying reality that these groups were also major parts of the Jewish religious order of the day; treating them like villains implicitly paints Jews in a negative light (I recognize that there are a lot of complex factors that play into the perpetration of antisemitism in Western culture, but the part that early Christianity’s sharp rejection of its Jewish roots plays shouldn’t be underestimated). I’m left wondering how much of the portrait of the Pharisees is manufactured by the gospel authors to establish a distance between Christ’s disciples and their religious contemporaries. The figure of the hypocritical Pharisee is useful for illustrating the type that we see so commonly these days in conservative Christians (you know, the folks who want to impose their personal, byzantine moral code on others for the sake of establishing “moral purity”), but I can’t help wondering precisely how accurate that depiction is. I don’t doubt that Jesus was arrested and executed because his teachings were taken as heretical to established Judaism, but I wonder how much of it was a political conflict rather than pure cravenness on the part of the Pharisees.