Bible study is such a joy! Imagine, we can read, understand, apply, and teach what God has given us in his written Word. What an awesome privilege! What an engaging opportunity! What a compelling responsibility! During December 2013, two encounters with writers of influence reminded me that good Bible study is still at risk. We all can be vigilant, and be especially wary of those who bring their scissors to Bible study – intent on cutting everything away but their own preconceived, powerless, paper-doll "Jesus."
To be clear, we all have many useful "tools" that can help us learn, understand, and apply what the Lord desires to teach us in his written Word. For example, various translations can help us appreciate multiple aspects of a Bible text. As importantly, it helps tremendously to know other passages of the Bible – and especially other Bible texts written by the same human author – in order to compare and even confirm what we comprehend in the text we are studying. Good reference Bibles help us in that direction.
In addition, a general knowledge of grammar and language and the different uses of literary patterns and genres – these all help enormously, too. Moreover, good commentaries give us historic and cultural backgrounds that can help us to understand and to apply the messages of the Bible texts. For the very serious Bible interpreters, a background in Biblical languages –especially Hebrew and Greek – helps men and women understand more directly what the Lord desires to teach us, within the original language in which each text was written. So many useful tools! So many opportunities to learn and to grow.
However, several recent writers are not content with these and other positive, appealing tools that respect the Bible text and engage our minds, hearts, and spirits. Believe it or not, some people want to use scissors, first! They want to cut back on the text so that there is less to interpret –especially by cutting out miracles, ignoring fulfilled prophecy, and deleting references to Jesus' deity. What they then "allow" to remain in the text is only what they can accept by their own narrowing ideology, their own un-beliefs. Ironically, what they scissor-out and let fall to the floor is generally even more precious than what they choose to keep.
Bible study with scissors is a big issue now, because scissors are the main instrument for unbelieving scholars who still are drawn to write or lecture on the Bible, and especially about Jesus. In particular, it is the main method of people like Prof. Reza Aslan, a Muslim, a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of the recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Among many others scholars, it is the prime tool also of Prof. Gerd Lüdemann, author, religion professor at Vanderbilt University, and a leading consultant for "A Polite Bribe," a film documentary on the Apostle Paul, to be released to theaters on April 15, 2014. Such scholars start with pre-assumptions – or are they "presumptions"? And their presumptions are seemingly systematically immune from correction.
The method is simple: Any Bible text that does not fit their theories about the Bible – or about Jesus, or about Paul – they simply eliminate with scissors. The eliminated words were not part of the original story, they allege. However, they have no documentary proof, no evidence. They have only their ideology guiding their eager scissors. In the end, their "Bibles" are much shorter – and eerily simple. If any Bible text remains that is contrary to their theoretic reconstruction of Jesus – or of Paul or of whomever – it is easily dealt with. Pocket scissors are so handy!
An historic exemplar of such "Bible study with scissors" is Thomas Jefferson, whose brilliant mind gave testimony to the memorable, eternal truths that all people are "created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." As awesome as Jefferson believed Jesus to be, Jefferson's mind was also a prime product of "Enlightenment" thinking.
Enlightenment ideology is skeptical of actual miracles. And even though he deeply admired Jesus as the best teacher of all time, Jefferson believed that all the miracles that Jesus accomplished were merely made-up stories. He believed that even the record of Jesus' resurrection was pure myth, and all the eyewitness reports of Jesus' life and ministry after his resurrection were untrue.
To set the record straight, therefore, Jefferson created his own "Bible," by literally cutting and pasting Jesus' teachings, but scissoring out any record of any miracle. Voila! Now we have the real Bible, Jefferson thought. No anomalous story remained to complicate Jefferson's presumptuous view of a simple teacher, the man Jesus. Jesus was the greatest moral teacher – no more, no less.
In a 2013 example, the aforementioned Prof. Aslan starts with the belief that the information about Jesus in the Gospel stories is too complicated, too nuanced, apparently embracing too many character traits – too many aspects of Jesus' life and ministry – to conform to Prof. Aslan's simple redefinition of Jesus Christ. His goal is to excavate the texts of the Gospels to dig out and preserve the precious little that "Jesus really said," and trash all the remaining material. So, Prof. Aslan says we need his help in discerning who the real Jesus was in the first place. He offers his Islam-compliant, imaginative reconstruction of the story of Jesus, but without a divine compass. (No wonder Prof. Aslan teaches creative writing at his university!)
How to sort out all the Gospel records to find what is a "good" fit with the real Jesus? Prof. Aslan resorts to a redefining principle for his alleged search for Jesus, his own unifying concept that Jesus was only a "political zealot," seeking the downfall of the Roman Empire. And he bases that claim on his false assumption that the Romans crucified only political rebels, or "zealots." On this thin, invisible thread, he claims that he cuts out more than 80% of the Gospel stories, anything that is inconsistent with Jesus being a political zealot. Unfortunately, the historic record shows that the Roman Empire was not so self-restrained – unfortunate for the many thousands of oppressed people in Roman times that were unjustly crucified, and unfortunate also for Dr. Aslan's entire thesis!
Similarly, Prof. Gerd Lüdemann rejects anything supernatural; for a start, he told me that he scissors out all miracles. Moreover, since Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a small town of no cultural importance, and was from no significant school, Jesus was therefore merely an illiterate, country preacher. And since he had no schooling, how could Jesus even read from the Hebrew Scriptures? With this re-constructed, shrunken, flat, paper-doll "Jesus," with the heart of the Gospel of amazing grace totally surgically removed, Prof. Lüdemann then rejects (by his own estimate) 90-95% of the Gospel record.
And why are Prof. Aslan and Prof. Lüdemann writing about Jesus Christ, Paul and other Bible characters? The Bible texts remain so very gripping. In our time, more and more people find Jesus and Paul to be wonderfully captivating characters – because the Bible texts are utterly profound and engaging! And yet both professors exclude even the possibility of a divine revelation from the living Almighty God – when that is the only real issue: How does God reveal himself and his grace, love and guidance for each of us now.
During December 2013, I had the opportunity to speak with these two professors – Prof. Aslan and Prof. Lüdemann – each one in different settings. In both cases I sincerely thanked them for writing about Jesus, the most profound person in history. The more attention to Jesus the better, I said. The same for Paul. I also explained to them both that what they are doing is "Bible study with scissors" – a method exemplified by many brilliant writers, including Thomas Jefferson and themselves. They each seemed glad to be identified with the great Jefferson.
However, as I explained patiently to each professor, there are two huge problems when their sharp scissors are used in Bible study:
1. In determining what to cut out, scholars rely on their presuppositions about the human author or human subject of a text, and tremendous damage is done when what does not fit the scholars' presumption/presumptions is scissored out. Extraordinary nuances of the character and accomplishments of the subjects of the Biblical texts are then surgically removed. In contrast, the proper order of study is to let the Bible itself, with the help of the Spirit, guide our surgical removal of the foolish ideologies that blind people, even very smart people.
2. The portions scissored out are usually the most precious and profound parts of Bible text. These scholars scissor-out what they cannot justify within their own finite minds. However, the very cuttings they leave on the floor are truly the most precious –
including Jesus' incarnation, Jesus' teaching for all people on earth, Jesus' awesome miracles, Jesus' Messiah-ship, Jesus' choice of unspeakably painful death on our behalf, and Jesus' attested resurrection. These two Bible scholars and others seek to shrink the Bible to fit their finite worlds and their small beliefs. In contrast, the proper order of study is to let our own worlds be expanded and stretched to include all the truths of the Bible.
Because Prof. Lüdemann claimed to be "scientific" in his approach, I then asked for his margin of error – a figure every scientist must calculate. He was humble enough to admit a 50% likelihood that he is wrong. I thanked him for his remarkable humility, but urged him to consider that his aggressive Bible revision with his scissors leads to error far more than 50% of the time.
Prof. Aslan made an additional attempt to shrink Jesus. He gave Jesus the "compliment" that he was an articulate preacher of Judaism in his time. But then Prof. Aslan tried to draw the false conclusion that Jesus could never have thought his Judaist ideas should be taught to the whole world. When I reminded Prof. Aslan that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves are full of overt claims of the living Lord's authority over the whole world – and full of revelation of the awesome sovereignty of the Lord's grace over the earth – he had no answer. Jesus was a profound teacher of Biblical Judaism, in all of its abounding universal divine truth and empowerment.
The scissors as a Bible study tool is used all too frequently in interpreting the Bible. It is now time to throw away those scissors and to receive, gracefully, all the great of lessons of precious Biblical texts.