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The Scripture of Judaism

A common exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) concludes that first-century Israelites valued tradition as much as Scripture. I imagine that this, like a common exegesis of Galatians and Romans, is a carry-over from Luther’s encounter with Roman Catholicism. But Rabbi Jacob Neusner describes a Judaism that is solely focused on Scripture.

In his Judaism When Christianity Began: A Survey of Belief and Practice, Neusner highlights two interesting points about the role of revelation and scripture.

Scripture Alone

Although God has revealed himself in many ways (nature, miraculous events, prophets, etc), “it is only through Scripture that Judaism takes the measure of events and occasions in God’s self-revelation” (p. 16). In other words, it is only the recorded words of Scripture that gives access and interpretation to God’s varied revelation. For this reason, Scripture remains central.

Interestingly, this is what differentiates Jesus from other prophets and sages. Neusner notes that no prophet or sage would claim to improve upon Torah. Like the modern-day preacher, they proclaim Torah, but not improve upon it. Jesus is radical in that he claims to speak with an authority that improves upon Torah. As Neusner says, “Jesus represents himself not as a sage in a chain of tradition but as an “I,” that is, a unique figure, a new Moses, standing on the mount as Moses had stood on Sinai” (p. 24).

Scripture as Paradigm

Proclaiming “Scripture alone” is not unique or original for us protestants. But what may be is Neusner’s description of how Scripture is viewed.

If I understand the typical protestant hermeneutic, it goes something like this: Understand the original meaning of the text in its original context (using language, history, etc) and then seek for principles that apply to today. In other words, we read Scripture as “past then present,” with a significant gap between the two. Neusner states that Judaism erases this gap. Here is an extended description:

“The idea of history, with its rigid distinction between past and present and its careful sifting of connections from one to the other, came quite late onto the scene of intellectual life. Both Judaism and Christianity for most of their histories have read the Hebrew Scriptures in an other-than-historical framework. They found in Scripture’s words paradigms – patterns, models – of an enduring present, by which all things must take their measure; they possessed no conception whatsoever of the pastness of the past…Rabbinic Judaism invented an entirely new way to think about times past and to keep all time, past, present, and future, within a single framework” (p. 16).

Neusner calls this framework “paradigmatic thinking.” In paradigmatic thinking, “the paradigm obliterates distinctions between past, present, and future, between here and now and then and there. The past participates in the present; the present recapitulates the past; and the future finds itself determined, predetermined really, within the same freestanding structure comprised by God’s way of telling time” (p. 16).

To support this view of time, Neusner quotes Augustine’s Confessions: “We live only in the present, but this present has several dimensions: the present of past things, the present of present things, and the present of future things.”

Although Neusner does not tease out this paradigmatic thinking, it led me to a couple of thoughts. First, the Psalms. Certainly the Psalms each have a historical context. But many, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together, view the Psalms as “one’s own prayer,””the prayer of another member of the fellowship,” or, ultimately, “the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ” (pp. 46-47). In other words, we find our present reality described and explained in the historical Psalms. James L. Mays says that the Psalms were intentionally written in a way to make this possible. Second, what about a theology of union with Christ? Isn’t there both a past-present reality and a present-future reality in our union with Christ. Finally, isn’t this how the NT often uses the OT? For example, notice how Matthew uses Hosea 11, “out of Egypt I called my Son.” Matthew is not saying that Hosea predicted Jesus’ exile in Egypt, but that the first exodus provides a paradigm for the second exodus found in Jesus.

This requires more investigation, but I’m interested….

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