Liberated from the Christological Madhouse
By Gerd LüdemannProfessor of History and Literature of Early Christianity,
University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School,
Many Early Christians believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the God-sent Messiah “Christ” who would provide for, and at the last day pronounce, their salvation. Their belief was based on the scriptures now commonly referred to as the Old Testament – not only on its explicit predictions and promises but its entire content, which they supposed to have been written down both to “warn” and to “teach” them. Jesus himself, Christians reported, had said of the scriptures, “They testify on my behalf.” Indeed, it was supposed that during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Jesus accompanied the Israelites as a spiritual guide and support. He was also regarded as the true source of many of the psalms, and his spirit was purportedly present in the prophets of Israel. Some Christians detected attestations of Jesus even in the creation narrative – for as John the Evangelist reported, he was from the beginning with God in heaven and through him God had made everything. Theologians found ingenious ways to derive from the Hebrew Bible evidence for every detail of his life – the virgin birth, suffering, death, resurrection – as well as the hoped-for future salvation events: Jesus’ return on the clouds of heaven, the final judgment, and eternal life.
Early in the second century proto-orthodox bishops began to collect the Christian texts that within half of a century formed the core of the canonical New Testament. Since these writings had used the Old Testament in various ways, the latter always remained a part of the Christian scriptures. Nor did the Reformation change that, for Martin Luther underlined the Old Testament’s christological relevance by claiming that the coming of Christ had fulfilled the Old Testament and that therefore its texts speak directly to believers.
Appealing to the clear and undeniable meaning of Scripture, Luther joined battle with the papal magisterium, arguing that his exegetical results were identical with the essential content of Scripture as concentrated in the person and history of Jesus Christ and unfolded in the dogmas of the church. His certainty on this point was the basis for the hermeneutical principle that the truths of Scripture are self-evident. This doctrine of the clarity of Scripture necessarily led to the demand that each theological statement should be based on the historical exposition of Scripture. Early on Luther insisted on the literal meaning of biblical texts and rejected the use of allegory to search for meanings beyond the specific content of the text. In his view, true faith was to be based chiefly on what the texts reported. No wonder Luther spent so much energy on producing accurate translations!
But today both Luther and the New Testament authors have become strangers to us. The simple reason for this is that all of their exegeses and formulations presuppose an obsolete and mythological worldview that injects an ineradicable virus of outdated belief systems into the texts. Let me add to the arbitrary christological interpretations of the Old Testament given at the beginning two further examples of foolhardy exegesis that even today are defended by theologians whose status or livelihood depends on the approbation of some church body.
To be sure, the uncritical reader might take Isaiah 52 and 53 to be a prediction that as the Servant of the Lord Jesus would suffer and die on behalf of mankind (“Surely he has borne our infirmities and suffered our ills…” – Isaiah 53:4). Yet, because of the context and the content of the passage at hand, this thesis cannot be substantiated. The passage concludes a cycle of four songs of the Servant of the Lord, which within the second part of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40–55) constitute a separate unit. According to these songs, the task of this “Suffering Servant” was to lead the Jews from the Babylonian exile back to Palestine and to establish a cult. Obviously these songs could not have had Jesus in mind, but rather some probably mythic and surely pre-Christian figure.
The evangelist Matthew would have us believe that Isaiah 7:14 foretold the virgin birth of Jesus; but since the announcement of this forthcoming birth refers to an event during the reign of king Ahaz (741-725 BCE), Jesus cannot have the child referred to. Besides, the Hebrew original of the text reads almah (young woman), not bethulah (virgin). The inaccurate rendering resulted from Matthew’s use of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, which in Isaiah 7:14 uses a word that could be translated as “virgin.”
Since the term “enlightenment” refers to the individual or collective employment of the human intellect, then it must be clear that the christological interpretation of scripture practiced by the churches for two millennia is as anachronistic as the Ptolemaic model of the universe, and that early Christians distorted many Old Testament texts to make them point to Christ. Yet more troubling is the fact that while their over-zealousness may be excused on the grounds of ignorance, many today similarly misuse the scriptures to perpetuate an ancient hoax.
Having eaten from the tree of historical knowledge, we are no longer able to take seriously an interpretation of the Old Testament that leads to Christ. All glory, laud, and honor to the founders of historical criticism for liberating us from the christological madhouse.