Sunday, February 17, 2013

Explaining My Gospel.

My purpose is to explain the theology of ‘My Gospel’ which I recently posted. "My Gospel" differs from a particularly evangelical reading of the Gospel in an important way. It differs in how Jesus’ death is understood, and the basis of that difference is a fundamentally different way of reading the Bible and of understanding theology. In particular I don’t treat Jesus’ death as a sacrifice in the particularly religious sense of the world.

Covenant theology.

The idea of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice is contextualised by something called “covenant theology”. In covenant theology, God had an agreement or covenant in place with Israel in Jesus’ time (in fact more than one). Through Jesus and particularly his death, God establishes a new contract with a new Israel – the Christian church. I see covenant theology as a way to honour the revelation of the Tanukh, (the Jewish Bible and the Christian Old testament) into the Christian era.

A prime example of a covenant is given in Genesis 9:8-17.

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

In covenant theology, this covenant with Noah follows an earlier one with Adam and Eve. The latter covenants will be with Abraham, then Moses, then David and then finally with Peter and the Christian church, through Jesus.  Jesus the Jew was born under the Mosaic covenant. The Noahic, Abrahamic, and Davidic were also still in place (though the Davidic was looking shaky). My focus is on the Mosaic convenant because it is something I see Jesus overturning with his message.

The Mosaic covenant was marked by numerous religious laws, a lengthy legal code that spanned at four books of the bible (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers) and sparked many legal disagreements in Jesus’ time.

Covenant theology says that Israel was right to enforce these laws, at least until Jesus arrives with a new covenant. It accepts that God spoke in the Tanukh when they laid out these laws. A particularly disturbing one is Deuteronomy 22:13-21 in which the crime is particular to women, a false accusation costs the accuser a fine, the onus of proof is on her family, and the penalty is being stoned to death on her parent’s front doorstep.

“If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then turns against her, and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, ‘I took this woman, but when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin, then the girl’s father and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of the girl’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate.

“The girl’s father shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man for a wife, but he turned against her; and behold, he has charged her with shameful deeds, saying, “I did not find your daughter a virgin.” But this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city. “So the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him, and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give it to the girl’s father, because he publicly defamed a virgin of Israel. And she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.

“But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin, then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you.

Covenant theology is how you resolve that Deuteronomy has God speaking these laws while Jesus who is purportedly God seems to have a very different attitude to stoning people or for that matter, women who are not virginal brides (John 4). Covenant theology allows Jesus’ story to be located inside a whole Bible which is all understood as the word of God. This means contradictions between parts of the bible need to be accounted for, which covenant theology does.

It’s worth noting that the idea that the Mosaic covenant is over is not consistently applied through history or across different religious crimes. Some instructions are seen as extinguished while others are not. Many Christians even retain “Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable” but thankfully ignore the second half of that exact verse; “They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
Oops, "You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: " (Lev. 19:28)

My alternative to covenant theology.

I don’t believe in covenant theology. I don’t believe that when Deuteronomy says “God says this” that God actually said it and someone wrote it down (or told someone who wrote it down).

I believe that Deuteronomy was composed when the ancient Israelites needed a strong code to retain their identity because they were under Babylonian rule. I believe they invented a past in which they were liberated from Egyptian rule by their God and then given a strong legal code to follow

It seems unlikely that the stories of Exodus that describe the founding of the Mosaic covenant ever occurred. God killing the first born of every Egyptian, the drowning of a Pharoah and his army and the liberation of the Hebrew slaves by the God of the Israelites, lack historical credibility to me. You would expect some awe for the Israelites from neighbouring civilizations if this epic intervention against the time’s most powerful civilization had occurred. It makes more sense as a national legend to bolster a spiritual identity.

My description for the Mosaic covenant is not history but theology. In fact even more fundamentally I would call it philosophy. That is I believe the books of the bible from which the Mosaic covenant are drawn are human understandings of what is true and what is good and that God is the symbol by which that understanding is represented.

To say it plainly I believe that these are myths. Partly informing that belief is the rich tradition of mythological writing which surrounds the Mosaic covenant. The Book of Jonah is a personal favourite. The covenant with Noah is clearly mythological. Only the most perverted science can make the ark work historically as a vessel for every species. Adam and Eve with its twin accounts and the problem of who Cain marries equally make no sense as straight reportage but stand as myth.

Myths are stories which are constructed to tell a point and which are told in the form of straight reportage, as if they actually happened. This doesn’t mean that myths are by necessity not factual. It merely means that they are not necessarily factual even though they appear to be.

This factual appearance of myth serves an important purpose. History has to relate to itself in a consistent and chronological fashion. Mythology has to relate to other mythology within the same mythos in a similar way. This makes theology and philosophy writing (the point of mythological story) a collective and organized enterprise for people who share a mythos. Conflicts between theologies and philosophies have to be resolved within a single mythos.

In contrast “just” stories don’t need to be resolved with each other. Snow White will never step on Little Red Hiding Hood’s toes. Goldilocks doesn’t come before or after Sleeping Beauty.

When philosophy is an explicit rather than a mythological exercise, conflicts between philosophies also demand resolution. Rationality demands that two contradicting views can’t both be right. Either one view wins over the other or a synthesis of the two ideas is reached. However in this process of philosophy preceding views are discarded. Those who hold old opinions “lose”.

Mythology allows philosophies and theologies to change in a way that doesn’t necessarily declare the past “wrong”. It’s therefore a very useful method for cultures that want to maintain cultural integrity over many generations. The experiences and understanding of previous generations are respected as true, while new history can also bring new ideas.

The Necessity of Sacrifice.

In the first century the myths of Moses were a history that had to be reckoned with as if they were absolutely true. That might mean that people believed they were true or it might mean that it was simply too important a myth to just let go off at that point. The 1st century Jew would have felt a great affinity with the Hebrews in Egypt in Moses story (or the Israelites in Babylon when the stories were probably written). They were under Roman occupation.

It’s also true that despite the growing influence of Greek schools of logic, the mythological way of writing philosophy was still prevalent in 1st century Judaism. Certainly maintaining cultural integrity with their ancestors was as important as ever under the rule of all-powerful Rome and myths serve that purpose. It would have been an especially hard time to say the old stories of God rescuing their people were just not accurate. It would have been just as hard politically to say that the old Mosaic laws were not truly God’s speech.

This belief in the Mosaic covenant is the necessity that produces Christian theology around the idea of the crucifixion as an atoning sacrifice. I believe that necessity would have been particularly sharp for Paul, the Apostle. I think this is an important lens through which to view his theology and the theology of the early church.

Early Christians drew on the ancient tradition of sacrifice to answer how covenantal change could occur. In Judaism an agreement with God was sealed with the sacrifice of an unblemished first born animal. The story of Abraham, in which he goes to sacrifice his firstborn but is told by God to use a ram instead, is very possibly the tale of this tradition’s substitution for an even earlier tradition of sacrificing the first born male child of a family. The covenant of Noah mentioned earlier was also established by a sacrifice of animals – the smell of which was “pleasing to the Lord.”

The other Jewish role for sacrifice was to atone to God. Their failure to keep the Mosaic covenant had to be resolved in order to start a new covenant. Jesus performs a sacrifice that made things right enough with God to wipe the slate for a new relationship. It’s specifically this idea of atoning sacrifice that I critiqued in a piece for last Easter; The real Hooray of Easter. However it’s important to realize that it was profoundly necessary for people already under a divine covenant.

The Gratitude of Paul.

This theology was not just a matter of impersonal reflection for someone like the apostle Paul. Paul was a prosecutor of Mosaic law. This included, by his own admission, arranging stonings. He was driven to uphold the law precisely. Yet he also keenly felt his own failure to meet the law himself.  He refers to himself as the greatest of all sinners.

Paul felt the Mosaic covenant as oppressive because it only ever convicted people as failures at it. It never instilled any capacity to uphold it.  As a Roman citizen Paul would have been deeply interested in the meaning of the “good life”, the moral concern of the age. As a devout Jew he would have believed it was to be found following the law of Moses. But in practice the Mosaic covenant was spiritually crushing, instead of bringing the peace that living the “good life” was supposed to.

My mental image of Paul before his conversion is one of a burnt out cop. Episode after episode of enforcing the law is not bringing the kingdom of God any closer. It’s just sapping Paul’s hope in humanity, one bloody stoning at a time.
Paul believed that a very real and very divine covenant was in place with Mosaic law. Paul believed that this covenant had been replaced by a new one by Jesus, the experience of which was profoundly personally healing and liberating. Paul believed that this change necessitated Jesus’ death, as offering and atonement. It is any wonder that Paul talks in terms of Jesus dying for his sins when this would have been his reality. Paul’s idea of Jesus as sacrifice is full of deep personal gratitude.

My alternative conclusions.

So what happens to the Gospel when you start from a place where the Mosaic covenant does not come from God but is a product of doing philosophy?

The first thing it does is it removes the specifically supernatural requirement of God for a sacrifice in Jesus’ death. God was not unable to start a new covenant with us until their son died on the cross. Both the old covenant and the new are philosophies.

Perhaps most challenging of all to Christian culture, this means that I give the defining attitude of Paul’s Christianity, the gratitude to Jesus for his sacrifice, a different meaning. Jesus did not purchase my freedom from the law with his death directly. My understanding is that Jesus introduced a new understanding of God that replaced an old understanding. The consequence of spreading that message was his death. That evokes gratitude but of a different sort.

This doesn’t however leave us with the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was an historical accident or even wrongful self-sacrifice due to their misguided magical view of their universe. Instead it opens up political interpretations of Jesus’ death with implications for our own lives. As I wrote in My Gospel;

Only when people peacefully refuse death’s power over them, do systems which perpetuate themselves by threatening death lose their power. Until that point those systems co-opt their oppositions and survive any number of reviews of their power intact. Equally those systems can absorb violent opposition easily. Countering violence with violence is the first business of any power. Speaking truth and performing love without fear of death is however something they can’t stand for long against. That’s the power of the cross.

Does this mean that the gospels are myths? Yes, it does; however, we need to remember that this doesn’t mean that the gospels must be non-factual. It merely means that they are foremost philosophy told in the format of straight reportage – the factuality is not the point. In fact the gospel would be no less myths if they happened to be factually true. The challenge they still pose to the Mosaic covenant would be the ideas about God (and via the symbol of God, the ultimate good) that they express.

We live in a time when myth is almost a pejorative. Certainly myths are not considered as impactful as the genuinely supernatural. Because of this you might struggle to accept that a philosophical gospel explains its impact on people like the apostle Paul. However in my own experience of religion, experiences of the supernatural don’t really change people. People who are judgemental can have their cancer cured miraculously for example and stay judgemental.

This is because on its own the supernatural is only a manifestation of inexplicability with no reason to change us. Alternatively philosophy, done properly with commitment, has the potential to break, unmake and re-create our self and our world. Even if we moderns have forgotten this, this was very much a first century appreciation of the life changing nature of philosophy.

To the extent that Paul doesn’t change his character, where he seems to go from being a zealous lawyer for the Mosaic covenant to a zealous lawyer for Jesus, I could put this down to merely a supernatural experience. To the extent that Paul changes his character, where he goes from stoning people to writing odes to love, I think he has had to have encountered something profoundly philosophical.

Appreciating the Bible as philosophy, I feel encouraged to consider what the Gospel means to me personally. Understanding the gospel as Paul understood it is not necessarily going to knock me off my horse. I am not necessarily traveling in the same direction as Paul and I am certainly not contending with the reality of a divine Mosaic covenant.

When I wrote My Gospel I tried to say how the philosophy of Christianity knocks me off my horse. What I ended up with was;

If you only live life for yourself you are dead. Real life, a life so dazzlingly invigorating it can only be described as eternal is to be found in losing your life for others. That’s the resurrected life.

For me the challenge of Christianity is two fold. Firstly it represents a chaotic ethic, an ethic where the precision of enduring rules are replaced by the responsibility to love. That’s a challenge that me and Paul can connect on. It overturns the legalism in both of us.

However Christianity makes an even more important point to me that maybe wasn’t huge for Paul. Christianity says this ethic of love is more fulfilling than the self, than pleasure, than all the distractions of life. To that idea Paul may have said “duh, of course” as he was always a hard worker for the “good life” but for me it forces a counter-cultural reorientation of my self, even a radical abandonment of self. There are echoes of Buddhism here in my understanding of the cross.

When you contemplate the life of Jesus, you might find a different gospel. Maybe there won’t be anything there that inspires you. Maybe the overturning of the Mosaic convenant will knock you off your horse. Maybe you will find the perfect philosophical foil to a burden you’re carrying that neither I nor Paul imagined.


  1. yea I just keep being confused by this topic Tony, I can't seem to understand why this content is all Christianity.... w mosaic covenant sauce.... you say urself its philosophy, but then you continue to converse w the Christian church. it all makes sense to me until the fun of contemplating the life of jesus bit... which one tho? the one u made up, the historical guy, buddy christ?
    I keep not understanding why you would have "the challenge and conflict of the cross"* remain pointlessly bound philosophically to christianity.
    *)from an amglican prayer

  2. August, It's a good question as to why I keep hovering around Christian territory. Just the other day I was looking outside of this mythos wondering if its too late to learn another language.

    It's definitely more of a challenge to even explore the language of mayan beliefs for example, let alone grasp their ideas. I have to tell my brain not to shut down in those territories due to ingrained prejudices against "time travel" and "spirituality" in the same sentence.

    The other point is that such an exercise would always be academic only. There are no Mayans I know in Bendigo. Christianity however is a living breathing culture I can participate in and interact with. That's a significant factor. I even find my secondary religious languages suffer for lack of use. There's nobody to talk Daoism with which I would love to do.

    The local Buddhism (we have a Giant Stupa here) set off some old Roman Catholic alarm bells actually with its pomp and male leadership. I still periodically imagine buckling in for a retreat there but there is a local Christian church which runs a community garden, has a common meal and has women leading the service that is much more attractive to me.

    My core interest is in what philosophically justifies a person doing good, recognising justice and noticing others rather than being a basthard. When I probe amazing atheists on the topic they usually just shrug their shoulders or think I'm trying to undermine their scientific materialism or worse mention genetics as if that explained anything. They remain enigmatic on the issue.

    Christians have lots of facinating explicit motivations. Some work better than others. Some intrigue me deeply. Probably the Mayans do too. In fact hook me up with any people doing good in the world who would like to articulate their philosophy for doing so - of any religion or none.

    Ultimately its that "doing good in the world" that I'm really obsessed with. You know I even think physics is ethical.

  3. hmm. k 'Christian territory'- that sounds so spatial, and you mean philosophical turf but also literally a market garden... I know this is impractical but I'm always looking for nondenominational market gardens.
    I find it so hard to eerie when I can't look at ur blog (lost and occluded by my txt window)... but yr My Gospel pt 2 talks about myths function in reconciling possibly opposed beliefs, ja? this is where I am lost- you personally continue to use non myth language to construct a christianity for yourself that like most Christianities has no room for mythos from elsewhere. I am bothered by needing a whole cupboard of Christian hats, atheist hats, buddhist hats etc. What ever happened to ppl like us here and nowish building a mythos that sits above christianity, science, and assorted diverse fictional constructs? because what you are building is being built in Christian territory....
    Am I one of yr great yet shrugging atheists?:) oh hey I now just refuse the whole question. Im not atheist, agnostic, or that other thing whatever it's called.

  4. Doing good drives me nuts topically. Im unable to find systemic ways of doing good other than very self oriented useless crap (do you know how many thousands of trees are saved by a year of vegetarianism? a frikkn lot. google it), in fact the concept of good- and the concept of a system, do they even make any sense together? we people are an assortment of units performing functions in a vast system- what good can be done for individual items of that kind anyway? so I an lost in the land poof physics where good and bad each shift when you move things..... I've kindof drifted i into some strange occult science of affect anyways Way tmi for this box:D... rrply to my question mark tony! xx