Friday, August 14, 2009

A Bridge Too Far: From Malachi to Matthew

Regular visitors may have noticed that thus far, this blog has focused entirely on the first “half” of the Bible—on Hebrew scripture, the Tanakh, the “Old” Testament. (I hope you’ve also noticed that I try to refrain from calling it the last of these names. For Jews, there is nothing “old” about their sacred texts; they are as fresh, life-giving, and “new” as they have always been.)

So it’s time for me to confess: I have yet to address the Christian Bible—or “New” Testament—because I have absolutely no idea how to get there from here. To build bridge sturdy enough to reach from Malachi (the last book in most Protestant Old Testaments) to Matthew seems difficult, if not completely impossible.

Let me tell you why I think it’s so hard. And how I plan to span the gap, despite the challenges involved. (And why there's a picture of Dumbledore there, teasing you.)

For me, transitioning seamlessly from the Tanakh to the New Testament is as tough as moving rationally from the Hebrew Bible to Harry Potter. (Though there's probably a blog out there somewhere that tries. Maybe it's called Gryffin-Torah. Or Harry Potter and the Challah of Prophecy. Or Hogwart's Yeshiva.)

Sorry ... to get to my point ... Why is that so? Well, after immersing ourselves in Jewish scripture, we can come away with a pretty clear idea of what those texts hope for: the restoration of Israel and the temple, continued adherence to Torah law, the establishment of more reliable systems of social justice, and perhaps the re-establishment of a lost intimacy with God. And most often, it is the Jewish people who are asked—and perhaps expected—to do these things themselves.

For Christians, Jesus is understood as fulfilling Hebrew Biblical expectations by himself. This eccentric, testy, paradoxical, not-quite-Jewish teacher who is killed by the Romans—and whose teachings are codified by the equally odd Paul—supposedly completes the Tanakh. But the way he “fulfills” Hebrew Biblical expectations is so thoroughly weird—with its mustard seeds and its turned cheeks and its Kingdoms of God—that it often feels like no fulfillment at all. In fact, Gospel authors so frequently repeat their claim that Jesus’s actions fulfill Jewish scripture that these assertions feel more like defense mechanisms than prophetic completion.

More bluntly, Jesus’s new direction feels like a tangent. Or perhaps more gently, the Christian savior is a virtuoso graduate student who gives his mentor’s research a completely different spin. And the “New” Testament can strike us as a brilliant, unexpected, heterodox mis-reading of the Hebrew Bible.

That’s the perspective I’ll take in this blog when trying to understand the relationship between Hebrew and Christian scripture. But please know that if I call the New Testament a “misreading” of Jewish sacred text, I don’t mean that term as a critique. The literary scholar Harold Bloom argues that the best interpreters can only misread their predecessors’ texts; for Bloom, all great interpretations of old texts are misreadings. (This all comes from his book The Anxiety of Influence, if you’re interested.)

Obviously, many Christians believe that the part of Jesus’s message that I've dubbed "misreaderly" feels that way for a reason: preachers for centuries and generations have suggested that Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecy in utterly surprising ways. But the more I read Isaiah and Ecclesiastes and Exodus and Job, the more Jesus's message feels not surprising, but delightfully irrelevant. And I can’t help wonder why God would create a relatively unified expectations with one set of books (the Tanakh), and then subvert them with another set (the Christian scriptures).

But tradition demands that we try to reconcile the one with the other. Not because we are all good Christians--though some of us are--but because the Bible comes to us (and especially to Americans) as an intact corpus. As a whole. No matter how ragged the package, it is one book. And it has been one book for around sixteen centuries—which tells us that for literally billions of people, the leap from Malachi to Matthew is no leap at all. Moving ahead in my writings, I hope to explore the reasons why this is so—while at the same time remembering that for every devout Jew, there are only reasons why not. It’s a tough balancing act.

Nonetheless, today I open the floodgates and free myself to jump among scriptures and between “testaments.” In doing so, I will not build a bridge—that image is too neat, too causal. Instead, I will take a leap of faith. Not Christian faith or Jewish faith … let’s call it interpretive faith, or "misreaderly" faith. We will make the transition not because it makes sense, but because we must. And because we can. And because we want to. And that will be “reason” enough.

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