The first thing to understand about the bible is that it is not a Christian book, it is written by and for the ancient tribal indigenous Hebrew people. Jesus was not a Christian, he was a Jew.
The second thing to understand is that the Christian church since the fourth century has been the state religion of the Roman empire and Holy Roman empire. The church itself was created as an agency of the imperial state and at times has itself been the imperial state.
So the bible we have today is a tribal indigenous story of the land of the covenant of Abraham that has been interpreted through the cultural and religious consciousness of the empire of Rome. It began as an indigenous oral tradition, in the Old Testament as song and poetry and the New Testament as the oral stories of Jesus that were unwritten until decades after his crucifixion. From the oral tradition it has been written in various languages including ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and then into modern languages of Europe which have then been translated into many languages.
By the time “the word” reaches our ears it has been reconstructed by the culture of European empire into something very different from its original tribal meaning.
The basic challenge for the modern bible reader is to distinguish between the essential meaning of the story and the cultural baggage of empire.
These two perspectives – tribal indigenous and imperial – cause the bible to be perceived in two different ways which can provide very different interpretations. The imperial mode assumes the bible is personal instruction for citizens of empire. The tribal indigenous mode assumes the bible is a manifesto for liberation from empire, be it Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece or Rome.
Lets’ take Jesus’ teachings on divorce in the Sermon on the mount as an example of differing perspectives leading to different meanings.
Matthew 5: 31″It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
Within the English language and western cultural assumption this passage appears pretty clear cut. The church has used this verse as a basic teaching on personal morality and enforced notions of marriage based on it.
The Sermon on the mount is full of references to the Old Testament books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, the narrative of the Hebrews being taken into captivity as a result of their pursuit of foreign gods and cultures and turning their back on the one true god.
Consider Jeremiah’s statements about divorce.
Jeremiah 3:1 “If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and marries another man, should he return to her again? Would not the land be completely defiled? But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers— would you now return to me?” declares the LORD.
Jeremiah 31:31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them ” declares the LORD.”
Jeremiah is talking about the adultery of the Hebrew people in breaking the covenants of Abraham and Moses by adopting the cultures of empire, this is clear and specific in Jeremiah’s prophecy.
In reading Jesus words on divorce we have to ask ourselves whether he is speaking about the same thing as Jeremiah in the tradition of the prophets or was he talking about personal relationships between men and women?
This of course opens up all sorts of questions about what “adultery” might mean throughout the bible, questions that I wont canvas here but I encourage readers to explore along with words such as “fornication” and “homosexual”. In each case these words can be understood in the context of personal sexual instruction or as instruction not to participate in the gods and culture of the gentiles – two very different meanings.
The church of empire has not approached the bible from the perspective of captivity and liberation from empire. It established a basic framework by which to understand not only the bible but also God and Jesus in the Nicene creed at the council of Nicaea, a council created and facilitated by the emperor of Rome himself.
The dominant church mode of biblical exegesis has been to begin with the assumptions of Nicaea as a lens through which to look at the new testament. This perception of the new testament is then similarly used as the lens to look at the old testament. The theology of the Emperor of Rome has been retrospectively applied to the whole bible. This has been the basic methodological flaw of christian theology since Constantine.
In stark contrast to this imperial reconstructionism is the words of Jesus in locating and describing himself in the context of the old law and prophets.
Matthew 5: 17″Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Luke 4: 20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
We cannot understand the life, mission, death and resurrection of “Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1) without understanding the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the proper lens through which to look at the new testament.
Similarly we cannot understand Jesus without understanding his contemporary historical circumstance. In the context of the Old Testament history of oppression by Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Greek empires, Jesus lives in a time of imperial occupation, this time by Rome.
About two hundred years before Jesus the Hebrew people drove out the Greek armies and colonists from greater Israel – The Maccabees revolt. The Hanukkah or Festival of light, where Jesus declared himself to the Temple authorities to be the Messiah (John 10), is a celebration of the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after it being defiled by the Greek invaders.
The Pharisees and Saducees so often mentioned in the new testament were political factions within the Sanhedrin, the council of politician-priests who governed greater Israel after the Macabees revolt.
About 100 years before Jesus, Rome invaded greater Israel. Instead of outlawing Sabbath and circumcision laws, the basis of Hebrew land rights, as the Greek invaders had done, Rome ruled in collaboration with the Sanhedrin. As a result the Jerusalem temple was restored and extended to palatial proportion with Rome’s money but it also meant the Sanhedrin, including the Pharisees and Saducees were representing Caesar’s authority in Israel rather than the covenants of Abraham and Moses. This arrangement allowed for Herod the Great to rule as King by way of Rome’s support despite his dubious connection to the priestly dynasty. The rule of of this fake King of the Jews and the corruption of the politician priest class that enforced foreign domination of the land of Abraham is the context of the birth of Jesus.
About three decades after Jesus’ death the Hebrews rose up, evicted the Roman invaders and re-instituted indigenous self government. As a result of this the Romans re-invaded in 70 AD, smashed the Jerusalem temple, genocided the resistance fighters and exiled the surviving Hebrew remnant to all corners of the empire.
This time of indigenous self government and imperial invasion is the time of writing of the New Testament. The struggles of the Hebrew people against foreign domination is as relevant to the New Testament as it was to the Old Testament prophets in their struggle with Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome.
The God of the bible does not support the Hebrew people simply because they are indigenous by way of the covenant of Abraham. God abandons the indigenous Hebrews when they abandon God and pursue the consciousness, political structure and economy of the various empires. The bible is written from the perspective of the prophets, those on the fringes of and often persecuted by mainstream indigenous society, calling them away from the consciousness of empire and back to God. Constant amongst all the prophets is the perspective that the sins of the descendants of Abraham are the causes of their own oppression, so it does not romanticise indigenous nationalism.
So, to understand Jesus we need to have some basic understanding of 1/ The history of foreign imperialism in the Old Testament 2/ The History of foreign imperialism in the New Testament and 3/ The perspective and attitudes of the prophets to foreign imperialism.
These three elements are the proper lens by which to look at the bible rather than the illusory theological templates of the Roman empire such as the Nicene creed.
The next question to be asked, once we have a basic understanding of the context of the bible, is what relevance do the stories of Hebrew captivity by and liberation from empire have to do with us here and now, what is the bible’s relevance to our lives?
The covenants of Abraham and Moses, the law that Jesus fulfilled, are not for the whole world but for a specific piece of real estate defined by Abraham’s covenant as the land between the Euphrates, Nile and Jordan rivers and the Mediterranean sea. This piece of real estate was subdivided into tribal territories in the covenant of Moses.
When Jesus proclaimed the Jubilee year (Luke 4) in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy and Moses’ calendar , he was proclaiming the restoration of indigenous self government under the sovereignty of God, just like in the times of Abraham, Joshua and David. The Jubilee is the restoration of the specific land rights of the covenant of Moses and not simply a generalised proclamation of generosity and forgiveness, although these elements are very important to the covenant land rights.
It is the one true God that is universal, not the land covenants which are very specific in terms of people and land.
Acts 17:26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
The Apostle Paul was called the Apostle to the gentiles, a position conferred on him (after he had appointed himself) by the Jerusalem apostles.
He says in Galatians 3:8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Jesus is quoted in John 10:16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
Clearly the covenants of Abraham and Jesus are relevant to the “gentiles”. The word “gentile” comes from the Greek word “Hellen” which means of Greek culture or somehow connected to Greece. Both the Greek and Roman invasions were by Hellenistic culture. The “gentiles” are the invaders, yet Jesus says of a Roman centurion in Matthew 8:10 “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
Within the Hellenic mythology there were many Christs or “Christos” which is the Greek word meaning anointed one. However Abraham’s blessing, Jesus’ shepherding, and Paul’s evangelism to the gentiles has to be understood in the context of the Old Testament notion of messiah, this is how it is presented in the bible. The Messiah is the liberator of the poor and oppressed from imperial domination.
Jesus spoke in depth about the liberation of the poor and oppressed as did the Old Testament prophets. The law of Moses, as long as it is adhered to, eliminates poverty and oppression. Whatever relevance Abraham, Moses and Jesus have to “all the nations” is, the cosmic and universal christ is the entity that liberates the poor from imperial domination in whatever apportioned section of the globe that imperial oppression exists.
The universal Christ is not about anointing universal empires and their religious institutions to rule in the place of God’s sovereignty.
To understand what is going on in the bible we must understand that, unless we live in the Middle East, it is not talking about us or the land we live on. The specific details of the covenants of Abraham and Moses, even if fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth, are not guidebooks for our own land, nation, family and individual selves.
The bible is only relevant to here and now if we can identify the nature of the relationship between God, the people and the land as represented in the biblical covenants and look for parallels in our own context. On the land that we live on – what is the nature of the ancient and eternal covenant of God on that land? Who are the people of that covenant? Who are the foreign invaders that defile or extinguish that covenant? Who and where are the poor and oppressed? If we ask these kind of questions about our own cultural, political and economic circumstance then the biblical “model” is of enormous relevance and the connections are not particularly complicated or obscure. The parallels are obvious.
This essay has not covered issues of personal spirituality and healing which are as much a part of the bible story as the collective and political issues. These are issues for other essays. In no way do I suggest that there is a schism between the personal and the political. In the old and new testaments there is a clear holistic reality that incorporates both. However, to replace the tribal indigenous resistance to empire with obedience and conformity to the Roman empire as the contextual platform to understand the bible will necessarily lead to a different holistic fusion of personal and political. This imperial paradigm is a different thing altogether and antithetical to the holism of biblical paradigms. Unfortunately this is the legacy of imperial Christendom that we must wash from our eyes in order to see the real glory of the risen Lord.