Bad Scriptural Exegesis leads to bad Christianity

I have obviously been reading too much good scriptural exegetical work lately (esp. Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth and Tom Wright). It is therefore a bit of a shock to realise that there are some really, really, really bad academics out there masquerading as scripture scholars.

Here is one Bruce Chiltern on the ABC’s The Ark. I made an attempt at engaging his argument, but realised half way through that (contra Rachel Kohn’s gushing “Well Professor Chilton, that’s quite a convincing argument”) Chiltern really does not follow consistent logic in his approach. In such a case, engagement is rendered almost impossible. “Resistance is futile” (as the Vogon said to Arthur Dent).

Anyway, just a taste:

Bruce Chilton: …It represents a kind of baroque development of his very simple words, ‘This is my blood’, ‘This is my flesh’, and what I came to realise is that within the context of Jesus’ own Jewish environment, those words can not have had the highly evolved theological meaning that eventually was attributed to them.

Rachael Kohn: And that’s because for Jews the ingesting of blood was abominable.

Bruce Chilton: It was thought of as being a form of blasphemy, that’s right. …The idea of consuming blood of any kind, any kind of animal, and the notion of eating human flesh were anathema to Judaism…

Later on, of course, he dismisses the reliability of John 6, which precisely deals with the Jewish abhorence of the idea of eating a man’s flesh, for understanding the meaing of the Eucharist, because

John’s Gospel is the last of the Gospels in the New Testament to be written. It is permeated with philosophical ideas from the Hellenistic world, and it has long been thought that it’s also influenced by some of the ritual concepts that came from the Hellenistic world. One of those concepts was the idea that one could enter into festivity and celebration of a god, let us say, Dionysius, and (in) the course of consuming a feast in his honour, one was consuming the god himself, so that one internalised that deity. This internalisation of the deity came to be celebrated in what were called Mystery Cults, because the idea was that each of them had an esoteric tradition , a mystery, that they’ve guarded very carefully, and then took their initiates into.

This conception obviously is at odds with the Jewish understanding that flesh and blood should not be consumed, but by the time of the Gospel according to John, which was written in Ephesus around the year 100, there had been a shift in cultural sensibility, away from a strict adherence to Judaism and into a much more Hellenistic environment. As a result, it’s in this gospel and in this gospel alone that Jesus can say in Chapter 6 ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. The one who consumes my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.’ There Jesus is speaking in a way that he doesn’t speak in the other gospels and he virtually uses the same language that one can find in Mystery religions.

So, with a backhanded swipe he dismisses the very good scholarship that suggests both that John’s Gospel is intensely Jewish and that it is historically reliable, and at the same time embraces the long discredited idea that Catholic Christianity originated with the mystery religions.

So what did Jesus actually really truly mean?

The pre-eminent issue on his mind was sacrifice. What appropriate sacrifice truly was. So when he said ‘This is my blood’, he was thinking in terms of what was ordinarily poured out on the altar in Jerusalem. And he was saying that the wine share within his fellowship was a more acceptable sacrifice than what was offered in the temple, where there were commercial surrogates involved. And similarly when he said, ‘This is my flesh’, his intention was to insist that his heavenly father preferred the mealtime fellowship offered with forgiveness and sincerity to the elaborate mechanism that was going on in the temple in collaboration with Rome.

Seriously, give me the Da Vinci Code any day! It makes more sense and is better scholarship…

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One Response to Bad Scriptural Exegesis leads to bad Christianity

  1. Past Elder says:

    This is new?

    Forty years ago in Historical Jesus and Christ of Faith, mainly for seminarians but also taken by a few non-seminarians like me, we learned that the Greek mystery religions soon clouded over the original meaning of the Gospel, which with the tools of the historical-critical method we were finally uncovering, coming out from a centuries-long darkness.

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