The Scripture Cannot Be Broken... Or Can It?

Saturday, December 06, 2014

There are a number of trump card proof-texts that get brought out to defend the way of unquestioning obedience. One of them comes from Jesus himself when he says, "The Scripture cannot be broken."

Checkmate. End of discussion.

The problem is that this "plain reading" of Scripture completely misses the context of what Jesus was actually saying. Let's take a look:

The setting is one of violence in the name of religion. John tells us that the "Jews" were going to kill Jesus for blasphemy. It's important to stress that Jesus was a Jew, too. So the problem is not with "the Jews" or even with "the Pharisees" but with religion being used for harm. The problem is with violence in the name of religion. So when Christians later persecuted Jews, and based this on John's statement that "the Jews" wanted to kill Jesus, this is an example of tragically missing the point. 

The NT critique of the Pharisees (including John's term "the Jews") is misunderstood when it is read as a critique of Judaism. It is rather an intra-religious critique within Judaism of a particular way of reading the Bible which is characterized by unquestioning obedience regardless of the harm it does. This toxic way can be found in all religions. So to read this right we need to begin by looking at our own hearts and lives--getting "the plank out of our own eye" as Jesus says before we go pointing our finger at some other group.

Okay, with that very important idea in mind, let's return to the text. Jesus, likely with a sarcastic tone, asks them which of his good deeds they are going to kill him for? They answer, 

"For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God" (John 10:33). 

This is where Jesus says that famous line that is so often taken out of context,

Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:34-36 NASB)

Note first of all that Jesus does not say "it is written in the law" but "it is written in your law." Why does he stress your law? I'll return to that in a second, but first let's look at the Psalm Jesus is quoting. This is Psalm 82 which begins,
God stands in the assembly of El;
in the midst of the gods he renders judgment. (Psalm 82:1 NET)
This reflects a very early view which saw Yahweh as a member of the pantheon of gods presided over by the high god El. At this stage Judaism was not yet a monotheistic faith and instead believed in multiple gods. The move towards monotheism at this stage was to regard Yahweh as above the other gods. (Note that the reason "gods" is not capitalized is not pejorative, but because it refers to the concept of a god, as opposed to a proper noun which is always capitalized.)

The reason the Psalmist says Yahweh stands superior to the other deities is because Yahweh shows justice in caring for the oppressed,
He says, “How long will you make unjust legal decisions
and show favoritism to the wicked? (Selah)
Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless!
Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!
Rescue the poor and needy!
Deliver them from the power of the wicked! (Ps 82:2-4)
Note that the one speaking here is Yahweh and those addressed are the other gods. Next we come to the part Jesus quotes, 
I said, 'You are gods; all of you are sons of the Most High...' (verse 6)
 and it continues,
 '...Yet you will die like mortals; you will fall like all the other rulers.' (verse 7)
So it's a Psalm about Yahweh executing judgment on the other gods in defense of the "poor and needy."

We can see progress here in that their view is moving away from a pagan conception of amoral tribal  deities exercising raw power to harm the weak, and towards a conception of deity characterized by defending the oppressed. The idea is emerging that God is not just about raw power, God is good, God is righteous, God is just. This is a radical idea in a world of despotic kings and tribal warfare. God is not defined from the perspective of the powerful, but from the perspective of the poor and needy. 

At the same time we are still at an early stage, both in their view of God as one among many other gods in the pantheon of El, and also in that the way the poor and needy are defended is by killing others. We are a long way here from the way of Jesus and enemy love. When Jesus, God incarnate, comes to defend the poor and needy he does not do this by killing anyone. The expectation however was that the Messiah would do exactly that. They awaited a warrior-king messiah who would kill the enemy oppressors, the hated Gentiles. Jesus was a very different messiah who declared God's way entailed a message of redemption for both Jew and enemy Gentiles.

While the judaism of Jesus time still embraced violence as a means to bring about justice, it had changed quite a bit in regards to how it viewed other gods, developing into a strictly monotheistic faith that denied the existence of all other deities. What we need to appreciate here is the irony of Jesus' statement that "the Scripture cannot be broken" since Jesus is rather obviously not reading the very Scripture he is quoting as it was intended by the original author. No one was, because Judaism no longer believed in multiple gods as it had before. 

What this gets down to is how we read Scripture. If we read it in a wooden "God said it, that settles it" way then we need to believe in multiple gods. It is written, "I have said you are gods" and the Scripture cannot be broken. That gets us into a pickle.

That "pickling" is exactly what Jesus is doing in his encounter with the religious fundamentalists of his day. He is trapping them in their own logic. He says "it is written in your law" stressing the your in order to emphasize their particular way of reading which was characterized by unquestioning obedience even when that interpretation led to harm. 

What we need to do instead is learn to read the Bible like Jesus. His way of reading allows for questioning, allows for change, always motivated by compassion. Scripture should not be followed unquestioningly even if it hurts people, rather Scripture serves a servant function which is meant to lead us to love. It is read right when it leads to love, and it is read wrong when it leads to hurt.

When Jesus says "the Scripture cannot be broken" it is said with a sting and a smile, knowing he has caught them in a trap of their own making. We read this best when we imagine Jesus saying it with a wry smile on his face, "the Scripture cannot be broken." 

It is sarcasm. It is said ironically. This kind of wry humor is typical of Jewish exegesis. This type of humorous response of Jesus is typical. Think of his retort "Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar" Or the story of the good Samaritan where the hated Samaritan is the example of the good neighbor. We find example after example of Jesus making these "gotcha" statements, and I think it would do us a lot of good to imagine him getting laughs from the people when he said it. 

We laugh at a good joke often because it is true. It's so spot on, so painfully ironic that we have to laugh. Comedians and prophets in this sense are not so far apart.



At 2:33 PM, Blogger Juan C. Torres said...

I hear this "rebuttal" all the time as well the one in Mt 5. This makes so much sense, Derek. Thanks yet again:)

At 4:58 PM, Blogger Clay Feet said...

I like your unpacking of this. However, is it possible to look at it from a different approach legitimately? I say this because for years I have seen something equally significant in this statement of Jesus that speaks to a different perception of the term 'gods'.
We typically assume (that gets lots of people into trouble all the time doesn't it?) that a god has supernatural powers, cannot be human (except for Jesus) and generally cannot even exist to even compete with God except in our own imagination. However I am not convinced that is the only way to interpret this word.
I say this in relation to another text from the Psalm that is also mistranslated at times. The KJV says that man was created a little lower than angels but as you know that is not accurate. Man was created a little lower than Elohim which is God. Genesis also declares we are images of God which taken literally means we are little gods - just like Christian comes from the derogatory term 'little Christs'.
In addition, when I reflected on what the term god might mean as ancient people invented them as needed, a god was any 'source' from which to expect to receive provision, protection or pleasure etc.
Thus if we can accept this definition of what the idea of god means (and it seems it fits very well to how it is used throughout history), and if the one God is supposed to be the one we are to trust ultimately for all of these things, then why would Jesus say we are all gods?
In this way - God uses people as agents and conduits through which to sometimes channel provision, protection and blessings to others of His children. In this respect we become reflectors of God or little gods. This also fits very well with the first commandment, for if there is no other gods at all why would God say to have no other gods BEFORE Him? He should have just said, don't believe in any other gods.
Not sure if this makes complete sense but is how I have satisfied the dissonance that at first seems to be in this passage. But I also like how you explained it. As I say, I believe there is often more than only one way to view a Scripture without violating its integrity.

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi CF,

I certainly do think it is legitimate for us to connect in many different ways with a text, comparable perhaps to how different people can get different things out of the same song.

The one thing I would want to point out though is that--whatever Jesus was trying to say about this verse--the response that John tells us they had was not to say "oh, yes that makes sense" but instead John tells us "Then they attempted again to seize him, but he escaped their clutches" (Jn 10:39). In other words, they did not like what Jesus was saying and were trying to kill him.

At 11:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Derek!

Before I ask your thoughts on hell(You replied to one of my tweets regarding it), I'd like to say I agree with everything you wrote on here. I have read the bible of course but I need read up more on Judaism.

Your post reminded me of a conversation I had on Google Plus recently. It was regarding a pastor who shot two thieves for trying to rob him. I told the online community that as believers in Christ, picking up a weapon and shooting at folks is a no-no.

Folks disagreed.

People who say, "Violence is okay! Jesus says in Luke 22 to take our purse and buy swords!" Scare me, honestly.

I laugh at these "Christians" but am saddened too, because violence is not where Jesus was going with his statement. I think He was being sarcastic.

You made a lot of good points here and I will comment again soon.

At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Erica (theWriteWeb), look forward to hearing your thoughts! Most people who defend hell also are proponents of violence, so seeing as you are not, I'm curious to hear where you are coming from.


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