3 times Jesus played fast and loose with Scripture

December 15th, 2015

Jesus had some great rhetorical moments during his ministry on earth: the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7), polemic against religious hypocrites (Matthew 23), and some powerful parables (especially Luke 10:25-37 and 15:11-32). Jesus knew his Bible backward and forward, inside and out. But there were at least three occasions where any seminary professor would have given him an F.

Before anyone gets upset that I’m impugning the exegetical chops of Son of God, let me invite you to do two things: First, think about the ways we use language and Scripture, and second, put on your critical reading glasses.

First, we use the Bible for many reasons: devotion, inspiration, literary and historical criticism, archaeology or as a rhetorical club with which to beat religious opponents. (Oh wait … we’re not supposed to do that, right?) Rhetorical fisticuffs were a fairly regular part of biblical interpretation in Jesus’ day. We can read the arguments of Jesus’ contemporaries to see how common it was. When Jesus resorts to bad exegesis, we know that what is happening is not about logic, reason or even the Bible, but about a struggle for power and a demonstration of rhetorical prowess. Jesus knew the rules of the religious game and used them to his advantage.

An argument that is convincing may not necessarily be logical, and vice versa. This is why logical fallacies are effective even when we recognize that they are fallacies. In the same way, I’ve heard sermons I’ve loved even though I knew that the exegesis behind them was a little off. They were clever, and they pointed to the truth even though the signposts were a little bit wonky.

Second, this is where critical reading of the Bible can assist our devotional reading. The reason I love these moments of Jesus’ rhetorical clumsiness is that it jolts me out of the idolatry of making Jesus who I think Jesus should be: the exemplary Bible scholar, the serene philosopher or the transcendent sage who is above such petty religious squabbling. God in human flesh is not above using the Bible as a rhetorical tool. Jesus does not put theology or Bible study on a shelf, or take the high road when it comes to brawling with religious bullies.

Here are three occasions when Jesus resorts to playing fast and loose with Scripture:

1. Jesus uses David as a precedent for Sabbath-breaking.

One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” (Mark 2:23-27 NRSV)

When the disciples get takeout on the Sabbath, religious leaders accuse his disciples of breaking the law (2:23). In response, Jesus refers to one of the most esteemed leaders of Israelite history. David, when he was on the run from Saul, actually demanded the holy bread of the Presence for food for his journey (1 Samuel 21). Now, in the Old Testament story, David is alone (verse 1). The priest guesses correctly that David is a fugitive, and that helping him may be dangerous. David convinces the priest that he is on a secret mission, claims the men he is going to meet have kept themselves holy, and takes the holy bread. The priests at Nob become accomplices to David’s escape, so Saul exacts revenge on them for supporting his rival, slaughtering them (1 Samuel 22:14-23).

It’s a very strange passage to use as an argument supporting Jesus’ disciples’ takeout food on the Sabbath, but Jesus knew that simply invoking David was enough to silence his opponents. For many of us, it’s like invoking Martin Luther King Jr. or John Wesley to shut down an argument.

But Jesus goes on to distort the story to make it fit his situation better. He says that David “gave some [bread] to his companions” (Mark 2:25-26),” although the text clearly indicates that David was alone. Jesus is putting himself in the place of David, and authorizing his followers to eat. Now, we can quibble over the details of how much truth David was bending in the Samuel story, but Jesus’ application of this text as precedent for his disciples’ own rule-breaking would not fly in most scholarly debates.

2. Jesus attributes authorship of a Psalm to David and uses the ambiguity caused by wordplay to confound his opponents.

While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ‘ David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight. (Mark 12:35-37 NRSV)

This talking point was apparently a favorite of early Christian apologists who argued with Jews about Jesus’ messianic status. They liked it so much that it shows up in four different places by three different authors (the others are Matthew 22:44, Luke 20:42, and Acts 2:34). The gist of their argument seems to be that this verse alludes to the fact that Jesus, as messiah, is both greater than David and his descendant, because David calls him “my Lord.”

It doesn’t take much critical thinking to see that this is a bogus argument. We can explain the wording of the verse easily: David didn’t write the psalm. It is written to the king, about the king —not by him. Or, if it is written by him, it is written in the third person from the perspective of the king’s subjects. It certainly doesn’t imply something theologically profound about a coming messiah.

Mark tells us, though, that the listeners loved hearing Jesus put the various factions of religious leaders in their place. In two chapters (11 and 12) he answers questions put to him by Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, embarrassing them and earning his place as Jerusalem’s public enemy number one. The fact that his question wasn’t very good didn’t seem to matter.

3. Jesus uses both ambiguity and humbug to weasel out of accusations of blasphemy.

[Jesus said] “The Father and I are one.” The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ — and the scripture cannot be annulled— can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” (John 10:30-36 NRSV)

After claiming that he is one with the God the Father, some Jews decide to stone Jesus for blasphemy. Jesus, in his most incredulous voice, asks why they would do such a thing. After all, he asks, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said you are gods?’” If Psalm 82:6 says we are all gods, why is it offensive for Jesus to claim that he is God’s son?

This is a patently ridiculous argument to any religious leader, even today. Any candidate for ordination who claimed to be a god would be tossed out on their ear. They would be deluded at best and dangerous at worst, and if they tried to use Psalm 82:6 as a defense, the interviewing committee would point out that it is addressed to pagan deities. In this instance, Jesus is guilty of two kinds of misleading rhetoric. The first is familiar to modern politicians: claiming that what he said was simply misunderstood (when everyone knows what he meant). The second is familiar to modern preachers: proof-texting from a totally unrelated scripture.

I’ve shared these three ways Jesus played fast and loose with Scripture because we modern Christians often put Jesus on a pedestal, thinking his divinity made him immune to faulty reasoning, prejudice (Mark 7:27) or the social and rhetorical practices of his day. I’ve heard preachers say that Jesus transcends politics and the bad rhetoric of religious argument. This is wishful thinking. Our need to make Jesus the perfect scholar, the perfect CEO, the perfect coach, the perfect pastor, the perfect psychotherapist or the perfect activist says more about us than it does about God. We have very particular ideas about who Jesus should be and what the Bible should be. These can be a barrier to our knowing the character and personality of the God we meet through the Bible and in Jesus Christ. We will do amazing feats of intellectual and spiritual acrobatics to make Jesus into the savior we want, instead of the savior we need, or to keep the Bible straight and consistent with our theology.

I believe Jesus was fully God in fully human flesh. He did not float above the ground, but walked it on human feet, and when he argued, he argued to win — and sometimes it was messy. We modern Christians are often too delicate by comparison. We try to be more Christian than Jesus. But if we want to engage the principalities and powers, we must be willing to read the Bible and engage our world critically as well as devotionally, to be wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

comments powered by Disqus