1 Jun 2022

The “Bass Line”: Hebrew Bible, the Temple and Reading the New Testament

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Lord's Supper, Paul, Spiritual Disciplines, Worship
N.T. Wright’s survey and critique of 20th century Pauline scholarship. Excellent book but lacks significant engagement with the “Paul within Judaism” school.

Insight from N. T. Wright

A few years ago, I read N. T. Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters. Reading NTW’s review often reminded me of Susannah Heschel’s book The Aryan Jesus. I was shocked how often ‘Church of Christ” thinkers sound so much like the most outrageously liberal German scholars. On p.17, NTW says, “the underlying question was [for F. C. Baur], ‘What sort of thing is genuine Christianity?”

It was a restoration movement! For him, true Christianity had to be separated from the contaminating Jewish chaff. Baur believed he wanted authentic, true, Christianity. But in his mind true Christianity had nothing to do with the Hebrew Bible and/or Judaism. Why waste time on that stuff! I was familiar with this attitude.

Wright, sometime later, discusses that most famous liberal of them all, Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann consistently interpreted Paul (and John and Jesus) without reference to the “Old Testament.” The OT was irrelevant because that is what Jesus, Paul, etc were getting rid of. Many of the quotations produced at various points made me pause and think, “I’ve heard this before.”

I kept having deja vu moments. How many times, in my developing years, did I see preachers, elders, deacons, “common people,” walking around with their pocket New Testaments to “church.” What better way to get rid of the “Old Testament” than simply not even have it between the covers of your sacred book. We were Christianity without the “Old Testament.” The irony that our theology and that of classic liberals like Bultmann is not far apart should not be lost on us. Divorcing Jesus, Paul, and the early church from Judaism allowed Bultmann, and us, to recreate each in our own image all the while claiming we are simply reading the Bible (or “New Testament”). It also allowed us to comfortably Platonize the kingdom of God and the ethics it demands.

Repeatedly, NTW stresses the necessity of the interpretation of Paul “in reference to the Old Testament.” N.T. Wright could have, at this point, quoted Gerhard von Rad’s brilliant, and brave, speech in 1943 in Nazi Germany. Von Rad stated to a group of ministers facing a tidal way of unhitching Christianity from the Old Testament that the “Old Testament is the gateway to the New Testament and any that wish to read it aright must first travel its path.” Von Rad said what needed to be said,

““It seems paradoxical: Perhaps there was never a time when the attentiveness to the message of the Old Testament was as urgent as ours {i.e look at the Nazis!}. The Old Testament stands as the most faithful guard to the doors of the New Testament, and it assures us that the breadth and fullness of the message of Christ … The exclusion of the Old Testament has inevitably as its consequence a distortion and curtailment of the New Testament message of Christ … There are certainly many ways into the New Testament  {wrong ones!}. But the era seems to be past in which each could see his honor, could have found his own private way. There is only one way that leads into the holy of holies of the New Testament, and that is the way over and through the Old Testament” (“The Christian Understanding of the Old Testament,” delivered on June 13, 1944. It was a daring speech in Nazi Germany).

But Wright did not quote him but he should have! Jesus, Paul, the New Testament writings, mean what they mean because of the Hebrew Bible.

Wright is talking to professional New Testament scholars in his book. But, with von Rad, I think the point is equally essential for preachers. I thank God that one of my rabbis, Dr. Richard Oster, repeatedly stressed to us the importance of the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) for properly understanding Paul. I should have listened even more than I did! If we do not do this then we will in fact end up with the Aryan Jesus, and anti-Semitic Paul, of Nazi Germany.

So my word to preachers, and all disciples, is cultivate the daily habit (yes, daily) of reading the Hebrew Bible. Preferably in large integrated chunks. Make it part of our personal Spiritual growth. Become familiar with the liturgical calendar of Scripture to see its rhythm enmeshed within the narrative itself. Cultivate the discipline of engaging several Psalms on a daily basis (See N. T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms). When we approach a NT text to preach, explore its foundations in the Hebrew Bible. Take the time to be intimately familiar with the theological motifs of the Hebrew Bible so we recognize them in the words of Jesus, Paul, Peter, James and John (exodus, salvation, redemption, faith, creation, worship, temple, people of God, etc are all Hebraic/Old Testament ideas). Get the narrative structure down in our DNA. Even when the genre of the writing is an epistle, James Thompson, among others, has shown that the epistle itself has a narrative framework. (see Pastoral Ministry According to Paul). In our preaching we cannot study and preach without reference to the Old Testament.

The Bass Line of the New Testament

Let me use an illustration. In most rock songs, even in classical music, you need to have a bass part. In writing/constructing a tune we start with a beat/the bass and build everything around that. The “bass line” is the “baseline.” The bass line grounds the entire song. Take out the bass and see what happens. It changes the music fundamentally.

The Hebrew Bible is the “bass line” in every part of the New Testament. Without it, you have a song but it does not sound the same. To say it slightly different, the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) is the foundational worldview of every single sentence in what we call the New Testament. How the New Testament “looks” changes as much as when we look at the night sky through optical wavelengths and infrared ones. So as a matter of course build into your daily routine prayerful reading and study of the Hebrew Bible. Just do it.

As an example let’s think about the Temple. When we say that the Temple was important in the life of Jesus and the Way, we are entering ground that is the exact opposite of older classic biblical scholarship. But the Temple is the pink elephant in the room of the New Testament. The shadow of the Temple is not just a literal building but the language and imagery from the Temple. The NT writers use Temple language in almost every book and we often simply are unaware.

An extension of this was that for years scholars have stressed the importance of the synagogue over the Temple for understanding the church. This, in spite of the fact that Temple imagery dominates even Paul’s writings related to the church.

Protestant scholars have stressed synagogue over Temple for the same reason they divorced Jesus and Paul from Judaism in the first place. They imagined that the Temple and synagogue were the opposite kinds of realities. Since German Lutherans practically invented biblical scholarship as we know it, they also set the terms of debate. They hated anything that looked (in their mind) like Catholicism! And what looks like Catholicism … priests, liturgies, rituals, law, etc. all of these became caricatures and foils for the Old Testament and Judaism. They took the struggles of Martin Luther with medieval Catholicism and projected them onto Jesus’s debates with Pharisees, Paul’s struggle with whoever the “Judiazers” and his supposed conflict with James, and worst of all they overlaid Luther’s “law vs gospel” concept upon the Hebrew Bible itself. This legacy has been inherited by every Protestant, including us in the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Old Testament studies as well as Jesus and Paul scholarship, material related to what was deemed priestly or worship or the like was both late and DEevolution (that is degeneration from what was more “spiritual”). Thus Jesus, by definition, opposed and rejected the Temple. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t even a real Jew in a good deal of this scholarship (to this day many are simply surprised that Jesus is a Jew).

And Paul, the only real apostle in this line of thinking, wanted nothing to do with the Temple. The early church, it was claimed, was not interested in Jewish stuff … that was secondary and legalistic or “proto-Catholicism.” The Apostle James, and Lord’s brother, was the backward misunderstanding legalist who held onto the Hebrew Bible. Luke was misguided because he depicts Paul as a genuine Jewish rabbi, Pharisee in fact, who circumcises Jewish men, takes Nazarite vows, offers sacrifice in the Temple and holds to the Hebrew Bible. Evangelical type believers are often shocked by these statements about Paul because they encounter the Book of Acts piecemeal and filtered through that traditional Protestant perspective on Paul and Jesus.

The real Jesus and Paul, according to this view, were fleeing anything that was Jewish because it was, by definition, unspiritual, legalistic, ritualistic, far from God. Jesus and Paul were, in this perspective, the antithesis of anything Jewish. This perspective has dominated Protestant readings of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament for centuries.  We, in the Stone-Campbell Movement, have not been exempt from this anti-semitic and completely unhistorical prejudice.

David Stubbs recent work is one of the best works, period. He takes us deep into the world of the Temple and how it shapes the central part of Christian worship, the Eucharist. Many passages come to life in this great book.

However, all of this is incredibly difficult to square with what is actually in the Bible. Since 1967, it has been (in many cases) Jewish scholars themselves that have led a reevaluation of Jesus, Paul and the early church and the Temple. The Temple is almost as ubiquitous in the New Testament as references to the death of Jesus.

And now with more discoveries, like the magnificent synagogue at Magdala, show that the old distinction between Temple and synagogue is simply not historically accurate. The synagogue was understood to be connected with the Temple itself (see Mordechai Aviam’s “The Decorated Stone from the Synagogue at Migdal: A Holistic Interpretation and a Glimpse into the Life of Galilean Jews at the Time of Jesus,” Novum Testamentum 55 [2013], 205-220, See the same author’s essay “Reverence for Jerusalem and the Temple in Galilean Society,” in James H. Charlesworth, ed, Jesus and the Temple: Textual and Archeological Explorations, pp. 123-144 published in 2014). An illustration of this is the historical reality that Jewish synagogues had a mikveh attached to it (archeologists have unearthed hundreds of these) just like the Temple. The synagogue from Migdal has shown us that one had to pass through the mikveh to get into the synagogue and it was in some sense sacred space just as the Temple itself. The synagogue was not over and against the Temple in the first century but an extension of it.

A string of publications has shown that the Temple is the shadow that is across the pages of the NT not the synagogue … the synagogue itself is understood in reference to the Temple (the discovery of the synagogue at Magdala was just one of those incredible “accidents” that, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, was like a bomb). This is why we find the Way in the Temple in the Book of Acts. This is why Paul routinely uses Temple imagery to talk to his Gentile converts. The early church was shaped and molded by Judaism that still had the Temple … Rabbinic Judaism was formed when there was no temple.

It may pay rich dividends to begin to understand the Temple both in the Hebrew Bible and in the first century. I suspect it will have a considerable impact on our reading. Jesus was no enemy of the Temple, he called it “my Father’s house.” The Gospel of John shows Jesus’s routinely involved in the Temple. Paul loved the Temple. According to Acts every trip he made to Jerusalem found him worshiping in the Temple. John the Prophet casts his vision of Christian worship in the Revelation in terms of the Temple. The Hebrews Preacher presents Jesus as our High Priest and we are waiting for his “appearing” at the end of his Day of Atonement activities behind the Temple veil.

Yes, the Temple is ubiquitous in the New Testament shining like a light of the Hebrew Bible’s grounding of the apostolic message. We probably would do well to understand its significance and learn to recognize it and it roots us once again in the squarely Jewish nature of The Way in the New Testament.

Some Resources: Some recent sources that are simply outstanding (I want to state clearly I make no money from the sale of these resources):

Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Essential work)

Oskar Skarsuane, In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influence on Early Christianity (a must read on the first three centuries of The Way)

G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Mission of the Church (what are temples and how do they shape the biblical narrative)

James H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus and Temple: Textual and Archeological Explorations (work by well known experts on the historical temple and Jesus’s interaction with it)

Peter J. Leithart, “Synagogue or Temple: Models for the Christian Worship,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2002): 119-133 (calls attention to the misguided attempt to dismiss the Temple as a foundational category for understanding Christian worship in the first century).

David L. Stubbs, Table and Temple: The Christian Eucharist and its Jewish Roots (a seminal work on the importance of the Temple for the Eucharist).

One Response to “The “Bass Line”: Hebrew Bible, the Temple and Reading the New Testament”

  1. Jerry Starling Says:

    Bobby, this is another gem that I will post in my archives.

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