I remember once asking my new Christian friends why – if Jesus is The Way and his Good News is all we need to hear – then why bother with the Old Testament at all? Who needs to know all that old stuff if the Gospels and Epistles have all the information we really need? It seemed to my novice ears that this was precisely what the apostle Paul was saying. Besides, there are so many glaring inconsistencies between the Old and the New Testament’s messages.
The typical response was that the Old Testament clearly predicted Jesus’ coming as Messiah. This made the Hebrew Scriptures an important source of evidence for Christian apologetics. As far as any inconsistencies go, well they weren’t really inconsistent. There was just a change in the way God related to us, now that Jesus had made everything right with his death and resurrection. And after all, the Old Testament was still the Word of God. Just incomplete.
Anyway, I don’t struggle with that stuff anymore. I think the Hebrew Scriptures (the term “Old” Testament is so…condescending ) are very important for Christians to study. All of the Hebrew scriptures, not just those found in our Bibles. We totally screw up when we forget that Jesus was a Jew, living in Palestine with other Jews, and most of these scriptures (no Bible yet, remember) were the source of his theology and his cultural traditions. And it doesn’t help when we exclude Jewish interpretations of their own scriptures, either.
I no longer struggle with trying to square the apparent inconsistencies between the angry, violent and vengeful Yahweh with the forgiving and merciful Father of Jesus (even though the Hebrew Prophets presented us with much the same portrait of God as Jesus did ). I simply no longer believe that any of the scriptures, old or new, are the Word of God. They are not inerrant nor are they infallible. They were written by men (and maybe women) who were certainly ‘inspired’ to come to some sort of understanding of God, but they were not God’s secretaries taking divine dictation. And they do not always paint God in a favorable, or accurate light. It’s when we try to take literally all the words found in the Christian canon, on face value and without any historical context, that our problems begin, whether we are orthodox, heretic or atheist.
I didn’t realize it then, but in some ways I was a Marcionite. Marcion of Sinope (ca. 85-160) was an early Christian thinker who also had problems squaring the Hebrew Scriptures with the Gospels and especially with Paul’s Epistles. He could not accept the idea that the loving “Father” that Jesus prayed to was also the angry Yahweh of Hebrew scriptures. So he came up with an alternative theology, one steeped in Greek philosophy and mythology, in which Yahweh is the flawed creator god, subordinate to the ultimate (and good) deity: God, the Father of Jesus.
According to Marcion, Jesus comes from the Father to redeem the walking dead from the clutches of Yahweh and the misery of this corrupt world. In this way Marcionism is similar to Gnosticism. (For a nice movie parable watch “ The Matrix” trilogy.) Marcion composed what is probably the first Christian canon, the first compilation of Holy Scriptures, but they contained only a syncretized form of the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Paul’s epistles were the primary source of his theology and it is Marcion who first placed them in an anthology.
Now, with all due respect to Rey (who got me to thinking about Marcionism) I do believe that, in this case, those church fathers who ended up as history’s Christian victors were right to label Marcion a heretic. Of course, they were begging the question because there was no such thing as orthodoxy at the time– there was no Christian consensus on doctrine or dogmas – there were none of the creeds Christians recite today. In fact, the first creeds were likely written and imposed in response to Marcionism, which had a great following. Now, I don’t think that the Church’s surviving theology is altogether that faithful to the teachings of Jesus either. But there is little, I think, in Marcionism to commend it to someone who wants to follow Jesus. Because Jesus without Judaism is not Jesus at all. It is something completely different.
What so many orthodox-loving Christians, then as well as today, fail to recognize is that much of this heretical doctrine infused itself into the surviving Christian theology. So many of these destroyed and forgotten heresies had very large followings – their influence would not disappear by mere decree (or by book burnings and hangings). Just a few examples:
-To this day Paul has an inordinate amount of influence on the Church’s doctrine.
-Throughout the Church’s history there has been a tendency to place our focus on another, better realm that await us beyond this fallen and depraved world.
-Our fixation on a battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is reminiscent of the dualism found in Marcion and Gnostic theologies.
-And, of course, the Church has tried it’s best take the Jewishness out of Jesus (and make villains out of the Jews – some believe that it was the Church’s repressed Marcionism that helped fuel the dogma of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution”).
As outlandish as Marcion’s theology may sound to us today, who have known nothing other than modern Christian ‘orthodoxy’ (the theology of the victors), does it really sound any more outlandish than the concept of a triune God? (Try asking your Jewish or Muslim friends that question.) Again, the problem seems to lie within the combined ideas of Biblical literalism and inerrancy. A more relaxed, though possibly just as devout, reading of scriptures can solve this problem and, in my experience, help immensely with one’s understanding of God.
It was the cognitive dissonance caused by trying to believe contradictory ideas, ideas not just found in a literal reading of the Bible but ideas thought up by theologians in their attempts to square their own contradictory readings of scriptures, that had me doing the same thing that the ‘orthodox’ had already done and continue to do: embracing heresy to prove orthodoxy.